Chilling early scene, where Bardamu is alone on scouting expedition, and goes into the town where Germans have just attacked. Goes to house where young boy has been stabbed and killer with saber, and mother and father are kneeling by bedside where boy's body lies, and all Bardamu cares about is bartering for a bottle of wine, which he pays five francs for, which is too much, he thinks.
First third of book is more rivetting: joining the chaotic French Army for WWI, a stint in rehab/mental hospitals, a harrowing journey to Africa for a turn as a colonial shopkeeper. When he returns to France, then to the NYC/Detroit, it fell off for me somewhat. Then the final third, back in France at the mental institution, picks up again.
But what a voice! I can see how it affected the Beats and American war novelists. Cruel, particular, self-lacerating, and endlessly dissatisfied. And the novel is loaded with aphoristic paragraphs. Forget quotable sentences!
[New Directions, 1983, trans. Manheim]
p. 4 - Love is the infinite placed within the reach of poodles.
p. 14 - When you have no imagination, dying is small beer; when you do have an imagination, dying is too much.
p. 18 - The biggest defeat in every department of life is to forget, especially the things that have done you in, and to die without realizing how far people can go in the way of crumminess. When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word. When that’s done, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit. That’s work enough for a lifetime.
p. 47 - Those trees are as vast and gentle and strong as dreams. But trees were something else I distrusted, ever since I'd been ambushed...Outside the kiosk the soda-water lady seemed to be slowly gathering the evening shadows around her skirt.
p. 99 - And besides, when you stop to think about it, at least a hundred people must want you dead in the course of an average day...
p. 99 - On boarding the ship in Marseille, I had been nothing, just a dreamy sort of nobody, but now, thanks to the concentrated attention of all those alcoholics and frustrated vaginas, I found myself changed beyond recognition, endowed with alarming prestige.
p. 125 - You can't deny it, men have a hard time doing all that's demanded of them: butterflies in their youth, maggots at the end.
p. 172 - “There's something sad about people going to bed. You can see they don't give a damn whether they're getting what they want out of life or not, you can see they don't even try to understand what we're here for. They just don't care.”
p. 189 - "Chin up, Ferdinand," I kept saying to myself, to keep up my courage. "What with being chucked out of everywhere, you're sure to find whatever it is that scares all those bastards so. It must be at the end of the night, and that's why they're so dead set against going to the end of the night."
p. 196 - Beauty is like drink or comfort, once you get used to it, you stop paying attention.
p. 247 - I'd pretty well come to the point, the age, you might say, when a man knows what he's losing with every hour that passes. But he hasn't yet built up the wisdom to pull up sharp on the road of time, and anyway, even if you did stop you wouldn't know what to do without the frenzy for going forward that has possessed you and won your admiration ever since you were young. Even now you're not as pleased with your youth as you used to be, but you don't dare admit in public that youth may be nothing more than a hurry to grow old.
In the whole of your absurd past you discover so much that's absurd, so much deceit and credulity, that it might be a good idea to stop being young this minute, to wait for youth to break away from you and pass you by, to watch it going away, receding in the distance, to see all its vanity, run your hand through the empty space it has left behind, take a last look at it, and then start moving, make sure your youth has really gone, and then calmly, all by yourself, cross to the other side of Time to see what people and things really look like.
p. 290 - "While he was cautiously preambling, I tried to form a picture of all he did each day to earn his calories, all his grimaces and promises, pretty much like my own . . . And then to amuse myself, I imagined him all naked at his altar . . . It's a good habit to get into: when somebody comes to see you, quick reduce him to nakedness, and you'll see through him in a flash, regardless of who it is, you will instantly discern the underlying reality, namely an enormous, hungry maggot. It's good sleight-of-the-imagination. His lousy prestige vanishes, evaporates. Once you've got him naked you'll be dealing with nothing more than a bragging pretentious beggar, talking drivel of one kind or another. It's a test that nothing can withstand. In a moment you'll know where you are at. There wont be anything left but ideas, and there's nothing frightening about ideas. With ideas nothing is lost, everything can be straightened out. Whereas it's sometimes hard to stand up to the prestige of a man with his clothes on. Nasty smells and mysteries cling to his clothes."
p. 291 - "This kind of meticulous observation was a habit, you might say a hobby, of mine. When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered, our sentences are hard put to it to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation. The corolla of bloated flesh, the mouth, which screws itself up to whistle, which sucks in breath, contorts itself, discharges teeth--how revolting! Yet that is what we are abjured to sublimate into an ideal. It's not easy. Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment. Being in love is nothing, it's sticking together that's difficult. Feces on the other hand makes no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state-- that's the unconscionable torture.
Unquestionably we worship nothing more divine than our smell. All our misery comes from wanting at all costs to go on being Tom, Dick, or Harry, year in year out. This body of ours, this disguise put on by common jumping molecules, is in constant revolt against the abominable farce of having to endure. Our molecules, the dears, want to get lost in the universe as fast as they can! It makes them miserable to be nothing but "us," the jerks of infinity. We'd burst if we had the courage, day after day we come very close to it. The atomic torture we love so is locked up inside us with our pride."
p. 305 - "So Parapine told me that during the retreat from Russia Napoleon's generals had a hell of a time stopping him from going to Warsaw to get himself sucked off just once more by the Polonaise of his heart. That was Napoleon all over, even in the midst of the worst reverses and calamities. Absolutely irresponsible! Think of his Josephine! He was her eagle, but it made no difference! Ants in his pants, come hell and high water! If you've got a taste for wine and women, nothing can stop you. And we all have it, that's the sad part. That's all we think about! In the cradle, at the cafe, on the throne, in the toilet. Everywhere! Everywhere! Our peckers! Napoleon or not! Cuckold or not! Pleasure first! To hell, says the Great Defeated One, with those four hundred thousand fanatics, emberesina'd to the gills ... as long as old 'Polion gets one last squirt! What a swine! Never mind! Life is like that! That's how everything ends. In absurdity. Long before the audience, the tyrant is bored with the play he's acting. When he's good and sick of secreting delirium for the benefit of the public, he goes and gets laid. When that happens, he's washed up. Destiny drops him in two seconds flat! His fans have no objection to his massacring them with might and main! None whatever! That's nothing! They forgive him a hundred percent! What they won't forgive is when he starts boring them all of a sudden. Good work is tolerated only when hammed up! Epidemics stop only when the microbes get disgusted with their toxins. Robespierre was guillotined because he kept saying the same thing, and what did for Napoleon was over two years of Legion-of-Honor inflation. That lunatic's headache was having to supply half of sedentary Europe with a longing for adventure. An impossible job. It killed him."
p. 369 - "During those attacks I despaired of ever recapturing enough peace of mind to fall asleep again. If someone tells you he's unhappy, don't take it on faith. Just ask him if he can sleep ... If he can, then all's well. That's good enough. I would never again succeed in sleeping fully. I had lost, so to speak, the habit of trust, the enormous trust you need to sleep soundly among human beings. I'd have needed at least an illness, a fever, a specific catastrophe to retrieve some small part of my old indifference, neutralize my anxiety, and recapture the divine stupidity of an easy mind. The only bearable days I remember over a period of many years were a few days of heavy feverish flu."
p. 395 - "One fine day you decide to talk less and less about the things you care most about, and when you have to say something, it costs you an effort . . . You're good and sick of hearing yourself talk . . . you abridge . . . You give up ... For thirty years you've been talking . . . You don't care about being right anymore. You even lose your desire to keep hold of the small place you'd reserved yourself among the pleasures of life . . . You're fed up ... From that time on you're content to eat a little something, cadge a little warmth, and sleep as much as possible on the road to nowhere. To rekindle your interest, you'd have to think up some new grimaces to put on in the presence of others . . . But you no longer have the strength to renew your repertory. You stammer. Sure, you still look for excuses for hanging around with the boys, but death is there too, stinking, right beside you, it's there the whole time, less mysterious than a game of poker. The only thing you continue to value is petty regrets, like not finding time to run out to Bois-Colombes to see your uncle while he was still alive, the one whose little song died forever one afternoon in February. That horrible little regret is all we have left of life, we've vomited up the rest along the way, with a good deal of effort and misery. We're nothing now but an old lamppost with memories on a street where hardly anyone passes anymore. If you've got to be unhappy, you may as well keep regular habits. I insisted on everybody in the house being in bed by ten o'clock. I was the one who turned out the lights. The business took care of itself. We didn't overtax our imaginations. The Baryton system of taking cretins to the movies kept us busy enough. Under our management the institution wasn't run as economically as it had been. Wanton waste, we figured, might bring the chief back, since it gave him such nightmares."