War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline review – disturbing, compelling, incomplete

<span>‘One of the country’s greatest writers, and a national disgrace’: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 1915.</span><span>Photograph: pr image</span>
‘One of the country’s greatest writers, and a national disgrace’: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 1915.Photograph: pr image

Caveat emptor: by all means buy this fascinating little volume, but do not expect to derive from it the pleasures usually associated with the reading of a novel. War is a soiled and bloodied fragment – one thinks of a journal lodged inside the tunic of a fallen soldier whose corpse has lain many days in the mud of the battlefield.

It was written in the mid-1930s, a couple of years after the publication of Céline’s first and hugely successful novel, Journey to the End of the Night, which it resembles in certain ways, though it is more bleak in outlook and more savage in tone, something which those who know the earlier book will think could hardly be possible. Here, as in Journey, we are addressed, or better say snarled at, by a narrator named Ferdinand, who sounds like a cross between an enraged toddler and a drunk who has fallen down and broken something. The result, for the reader, is at once exhausting and oddly bracing.

The narrative begins halfway through. This is not a modernist device, but is due simply to the fact that the first half of it is lost. As Sander Berg, the translator, remarks in a brief introduction, the history of the manuscript is as convoluted as the plot of a detective novel; in fact, it is as convoluted as the plot of War.

The battle of Flanders is raging, and the narrator wakes to find his left ear “glued to the ground with blood, my mouth too”. His arm is badly injured, and his head is filled with noise. Céline himself fought in the war and was wounded in October 1914, and for the rest of his life suffered from partial paralysis in his arm, “vertigo, auditory hallucinations and tinnitus”. The fictional Ferdinand, therefore, knows whereof he speaks, for he speaks out of the experience of his creator. As he says, unforgettably: “I caught the war in my head.”

The novel throughout has a juddering, dreamlike quality, which is intensified by its fragmentary form, and the numerous lacunae, arbitrary changes of mind, and plain mistakes that litter the pages. The names of the characters are interchangeable – Ferdinand’s sidekick Bébert, a Parisian pimp, is sometimes called Cascade – a polite dinner party takes place just behind the frontlines, with columns of soldiers marching past the dining room windows, and at one point Ferdinand is under threat of court martial for desertion when word comes that he is to be presented with a medal for valour by General Joffre, the French commander – as was Céline himself.

The action progresses, if that is the word, in random zigs and zags; one minute we are in a bar where a violent argument is being carried on between a prostitute and her pimp, the next we are celebrating the conferring of Ferdinand’s medal with his proud parents over that frontline dinner, given at the tranquil home of Mr Harnache, a colleague of his father’s in the insurance business. The occasion inspires one of Ferdinand’s more articulate and venomous condemnations of the bourgeois niceties:

The German head of propaganda in France dismissed Céline’s writings as ‘hysterical wailing’

“I felt their overwhelming, optimistic, hare-brained, nauseating stupidity, which they cobbled together to guard themselves against all evidence, turning a blind eye to the shame and the intense, extreme and bloody torture that was screaming at them from the very windows of the room where we were stuffing ourselves…”

Céline, real name Louis Ferdinand Destouches, is recognised in France as one of the country’s greatest writers, and a national disgrace. His career was chequered in the extreme. After the war he worked in France for the Rockefeller Foundation, studied to be a doctor, was later employed by the League of Nations, travelled in Africa and North America, was quickly married and as quickly divorced, after which he took up with an American dancer, Elizabeth Craig, to whom he dedicated Journey, which appeared in 1932.

Related: Céline: French literary genius or repellent antisemite? New film rekindles an old conflict

His political opinions – he considered himself an anarchist – became increasingly extreme, and in 1937 he published Bagatelles pour un massacre, the first of three poisonously antisemitic pamphlets. Later, during the occupation, he urged on the German authorities in their plans to exterminate French Jewry. His views were too violent even for the likes of the collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach, who was executed for treason after the war, while the German head of propaganda in France dismissed his writings as “hysterical wailing”.

As the war was ending, Céline fled to Germany, where he lodged with a ragbag of other political renegades at the notorious castle of Sigmaringen. Later he went on to Denmark, where he was arrested and imprisoned. Eventually he was pardoned and returned to live out his days in seclusion at his home on the outskirts of Paris.

War was to have been the second volume of a trilogy of novels provisionally entitled Childhood-War-London. It is an extraordinary work, hysterical in tone and demented in content. Had it been completed, it might have been a masterpiece; as it stands, or staggers, it is deeply disturbing and horribly compelling.

• War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (translated by Sander Berg) is published by Alma Classics (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply