Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961), French writer. Meudon, about 1955. Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Rumours of a crime

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a flawed man, but he should be allowed to be condemned by his words

Artillery Row

Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journeys to the Extreme, by Damian Catani. 

Damian Catani opens his biography of Céline with a scene of the future author taking a girlfriend to a Dutch street. They observed parents prostituting their children to unknown men. The girlfriend was shocked and asked what they could do about it. Nothing, Céline said. So, she asked, why did he bring her there if they were not going to help? “I just wanted you to know,” he said. 

Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) was born Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, above the clothing shop of his mother in a Paris suburb. In his future writing, Céline was scornful of his parents’ social aspirations and hostile towards bourgeois desire for social elevation. Over the course of several internships, the youth racked up debts and, consequently, was sent by his parents to join the cavalry to teach him some discipline. The mobilisation of August 1914 and the serious injury he suffered in October 1914 altered the course of his life. He was shot through the arm, having just delivered a message on the front line. The concussion of a separate shell strike (described in Journey to the End of Night), caused him to suffer lifelong hearing impairment and vertigo. The war itself gave him a subject to write about. The gestation, however, would be a long one. 

Céline departed for Cameroon in 1916, to work for the French administrators of the colony, recently prised from the grasp of Germany. Travelling up the River Campo into the interior, Céline acted as a supervisor for cocoa plantations and trading ivory, far from other Europeans. It could be unpredictable and dangerous work, and he was armed at all times. 

Céline stares at the spectacle of depravation, poverty and distress with a pitilessness that borders on pathology

On 10 August 1918, as Europe was wringing the last blood from its noble youth, war hero M. Destouches was married to Mlle Édith Follet, an attractive and chaste daughter of a distinguished university professor. For Céline — carouser, cynic, colonial buccaneer — this seems an unlikely bid for respectability. Céline never fails to provide fodder for commentators, even to this day. Catani points out that throughout his life, Céline was no stranger to working to alleviate suffering and was sensitive to generosity. Prickly, when slighted he would lash out in fiery fashion. (Sartre was “a dung beetle”, who had “freed Paris, while riding his bicycle”.) Although cynical, he was no nihilist. 

Encouraged by his father-in-law, Céline studied first biology, then medicine. His marriage was over by the time he set up practice as a doctor serving a poor suburb of Paris. He stored up the experiences in his memory and then, from 1929, on paper, as he began work on his first novel. Journey to the End of Night (1932) was a tour de force – a searing critique of war, the indignity of colonialism and a stark view of urban poverty as seen by a general practitioner. Céline stares at the spectacle of depravation, poverty and distress with a pitilessness that borders on pathology. Overall, Journey to the End of Night is an extraordinary book – powerful, unafraid, using the tough colloquial argot of the ordinary man. 

In 1936, struggling to shape his second novel, Céline met the dancer Lucie “Lucette” Almanzor. In 1943, she would become his final wife. When Death on Credit (1936) appeared, the hyperbole, looser syntax and more intrusive argot and profanity drew criticism. The adoption of sentence fragments divided by ellipses became a stylistic trademark. The intention was to intensify the conveyance of emotion and impart the author’s experience by a process of literary evocation rather than literal description. The chilly response to the book gave rise in Céline’s mind to a campaign against him by his critics, especially Jews. His turn to the invective pamphlet the following year, which displayed his unvarnished anger towards Jews, was to prove fateful. It is the series of pamphlets that are at the root of arguments over Céline’s reputation today in France. 

Céline visited the USSR in 1936 and put his criticisms in the pamphlet Mea Culpa (1937). He compared Soviet factories to Ford’s Detroit factory. “It was little wonder that the Left in France reacted furiously to the pamphlet, and Céline forever burnt his bridges with the communists.” The next pamphlet was Trifles for a Massacre (1937), a warning against race-mixing between Jews and Aryans, deploying the language of scientific racism. School for Corpses (1938) was a splenetic, hate-filled tirade against Jews, more cathartic spasm of disgust than argument. Céline did not advocate a tactical alliance with Hitler for the sake of peace; instead Céline actively praised Hitler and endorsed Nazi racial theories. During the Occupation, Céline attended some Nazi functions in Paris, but his uncouth appearance and outbursts of hostility and mockery made him an embarrassing liability. Despite never collaborating with occupiers, Céline was left dangerously isolated.

Céline and Lucette went on the run in June 1944. They fled for Germany, where Céline worked as a doctor, treating officials of the defeated Vichy regime in exile. With Nazi approval, the couple travelled through Germany, crossing the border to Denmark. There he was arrested but France was unable to extradite him because of legal complications and absence of evidence of collaboration. “Céline was certainly an antisemite, but there is no evidence, in any of his writings or statements, that he ever supported the Holocaust.” In an uncompromising mood of score-settling, Céline’s name was near the top of the list of those marked for execution. Céline’s publisher, Robert Denoël was shot dead, probably in a political assassination by the Resistance. In legal limbo, free of charges but unwelcome in France, Lucette and Céline stayed on in Denmark. In 1948, Céline was found guilty of committing “national indignity” and sentenced in absentia to one year in prison and heavily fined. A pardon open to all wounded veterans was granted in 1951, allowing Céline to return to France. 

In his last decade, Céline would live with Lucette in Meudon, a suburb of Paris, reclusive and ascetic. They had no radio or television and little money. (He even revived his medical practice by taking on a handful of private patients, who would come to his home.) He rarely visited the city centre and kept to a strict routine, in part because of his delicate health. He eventually became a cripple, suffering from a recurrent fever contracted in Africa, pained by his war wound and felled by persistent migraines. He died on 1 July 1961, at the height of summer, preoccupied by the preparation of a new novel. 

Catani’s refreshing and dramatic biography of Céline is a serious piece of work. It assesses his achievements and failures in a level-headed and carefully presented manner. While not all will concur with Catani’s precise weighting of evidence or agree with his conclusions, none will doubt his sincerity and diligence. The thoroughness of the sources and footnotes attest to that. 

Let us see the author as a whole, in all his glory and baseness

How readers view Céline as author will depend on a number of factors. One is tolerance for vulgar language and coarse content. Perhaps a greater difficulty relates to the staccato ejaculatory style of the later writing, with its ellipses. As someone who enjoys Beckett’s internal monologues and can read a Burroughs cut-up novel for pleasure, I cannot say I lasted even 10 pages of Normance, one of the post-War novels. What the author gains in intensity, he loses in context. I simply cannot get invested enough to care about the experiences of characters if I am not given the courtesy of an introduction to those characters and situational information.  

The pamphlets of 1937-1941 remain in limbo. Neither re-published nor officially outlawed, in 2017 publisher Gallimard (successor to Éditions Desnoël as publisher of Céline and his estate) intended to reprint the pamphlets with a critical apparatus to contextualise the material. It was drowned in a storm of objections and publication was indefinitely postponed. Catani outlines the sides in the Céline culture war and concludes “a sensible compromise would surely be to republish his pamphlets in a responsible way that also sheds important light on the antisemitism of the 1930s”.

Céline is a great writer and an important one. He needs to be taken seriously as a chronicler of society (especially its poorest citizens), as a writer-artist, as a bellwether of political attitudes. The case of Céline should also act a reminder that even a man ruined by himself can – if given opportunity – rise again to relevance and artistry in later life. Let his writings – yes, even the pamphlets – be fully published and let us see the author as a whole, in all his glory and baseness. A man is always most condemned by his own acts. Those who despise Céline should allow him to be condemned by his own words. Remember, no man can be condemned by hearsay alone and (for so many) Céline’s pamphlets are hearsay – rumours of a crime.  

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