Lara Taffer kicks off our series looking at forgotten books and authors who made an impact and whose work has an enduring appeal.
Referred to by some as the forefather of black comedy, Louis-Ferdinand Céline wrote Death on the Installment Plan, an 800-page novel set in Paris at the end of the 19th century revealing the ugly underbelly of the city and its inhabitants. His works blazed the trails of dark humor for the genre, but today he is an often overlooked literary pioneer.
Death on the Installment Plan begins by introducing us to the main character, Ferdinand, a doctor who during his service in the army sustained a major head injury. Ferdinand is an exhausted man with a troubled mind which is often filled with licentious and erratic thoughts, jumping from one memory to the next, rushing from one place to another, forgetting why he went in the first place.
He hears a constant ringing in his ears that he speculates will drive him to madness (if he hasn’t already reached it). This injury and character trait may help explain for the odd style of writing that Celine uses for the novel: the entire book is written without chapters or sections, uses ellipses more often than periods, and the train of thought hardly ever breaks. It is an idiosyncratic, but somehow incredibly realistic, technique to recreate a stream of conscious thought.
The main story arc of the novel is simply a recollection of moments of his childhood and youth in the slums of Paris, boarding school, and eventually the French countryside. He is an outcast, with parents who work hard but earn little, and goes through a string of bosses and odd jobs that exploit him. Ferdinand recounts these episodes of being cheated, beat, and abused, and we watch the development of his cynicism as well as witness the rise and fall of his hopes and dreams.
Cynicism and pessimism run through the novel, but there are bursts of comedic relief and the continuing theme of hope is present throughout. However, the overall mood is dark and his visions of hope are put out time and time again. The title of the novel itself is an allusion of the constant struggle to survive, people living off of luck, stealing, and of course, credit. The citizens of the world earn their final purchase – death – by paying for it a little each day.
The companion novel is Death is Journey to the End of Night, and following the same writing style, tells of the next segment of Ferdinand’s life in the military. I should also mention before you run out and buy these books, there are numerous lewd passages and sometimes overly descriptive accounts of our hero’s sexual encounters, preferences, and bodily functions. Nights of drinking and debauchery are not clean incidents. Scenes of death are not exclusive of saddening details. I would argue, however, that these instances are a part of what makes the story and its message unique. At the time of its publication, the world had not yet read such detailed and overly realistic writing on such private matters and in a manner that found humor in lasciviousness, promiscuity, and filth. It is hard to find other contemporary authors taking these topics, seen as taboo, and turning them into comedy. It is for these reasons, Céline can claim that he pioneered a new genre of the novel and helped guide twentieth-century writing into a new direction. And the world of film and literature has thus seen an influx of great black comedy ever since.
Black comedy is a distant cousin of satire, and both are just as relevant and popular as ever. It is easy to see that satire and humor can communicate multitudes of information, morals, and social commentary, sometimes by being offensive, comical, or dark in theme. This is nothing new, and satire has been able to convey hypocrisies and the unethical more efficiently than hard news for quite some time. The well known poem A Modest Proposal, written in 1729 by Jonathan offers a solution for the famine in Ireland: the Irish peasants shall sell their children to the rich, easing the peasant’s unfavorable economic position and providing the rich with a source of food. This graphic, suggestive, and classic essay, obviously not intended to be taken literally, commented on poverty and unjust economics in Ireland. It is exactly the appalling characteristics of the proposal that sends the message to its readers in a most powerful way.
If we think to our own time, there are plenty of satirical and comedic news shows, and they are in-demand and fashionable. But like most broadcasts on television today, the shows fall into the entertainment category rather than that of true social commentary. Black comedy and satire paved the roads for these kinds of shows of our time. Publicly humiliating public figures, for example, is now a regularly accepted practice. It is all the more important, therefore, to understand the way satire and black comedies were once framed and viewed in our world.
Once controversial and libelous, black comedy and satire were a new form of reporting the news of the day, bringing into public focus overlooked issues, and unveiling the darkness of society and her problems. Death on the Installment Plan is a work that contains all the elements of good dark comedy: humor, promiscuity, pessimism, and a serious, cynical message for the reader to take away. Céline’s work addresses issues of poverty, addiction, and the downside of urban life, but they are juxtaposed with a sense of absurdity, tragedy and humor, empowering its message in its own unique way.
Want to check out more?
Black Comedy Recommendations:
Journey to the End of Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut
Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
The Broom of the System & Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace