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by Bamber Gascoigne

Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) - pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches


French writer and physician, nihilist and anti-Semitist, a controversial figure, who became famous with his first novel Voyage au bout de la nuit  (1932, Journey to the End of the Night). Louis-Ferdinand Céline was wounded severely in World War I and respected as a national hero. After World War II he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and only his literary fame saved him from imprisonment. 

"It's harder to lose the wish to love than the wish to live. One spends one's time in this world killing and adoring, and one does both together. 'I hate you! I adote you!' You defend yourself and have a good time and pass on life to some biped in the next century, frantically, at all costs, as if to be continued were a tremendously pleasant thing, as if, after all, that could make one live for ever. Whatever happens, one has to make love as one has to scratch." (from Journey to the End of the Night, translated from the French by John H. P. Marks, Penguin Books, 1966, p. 62) 

Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (Louis-Ferdinand Céline) was born in Courbevoie in the Seine Department. His father was employed by an insurance company and mother dealt in quality lace. Céline grew in Paris, where his mother set up a shop in the Passage Choiseul. Céline's parents planned him a career in business and sent him abroad to learn languages. He studied at a school at Diepholz in Lower Saxony, then at an English boarding school, and worked in various commercial companies.

In 1912, at the age of 18, he enlisted in a cavalry unit, the Twelfth Regiment of the Cuirassiers. He was seriously wounded during World War I in Ypres, which left him with a damaged arm, a buzzing and ringing in his head, and headaches that lasted all his life. In the autobiographical novel North (1960) he wrote about his ear noises: "I can say without exaggeration that since November 1914 I've slept on for moments at a time . . . I adapt myself to the sound in my ears . . .  I hear it turning into trombones, a full orchestra, a shunting yard . . ." (Ibid, translated by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, 1972, p. 169) He was awarded the Médaille militaire and a seventy-five percent disability pension.

Céline was then assigned to the French passport office in London. In 1915 he married Suzanne Nebout, a Frenchwoman working as a barmaid, but this union was not registered with the French consulate. They divorced a years later, when he wen to the Cameroons, where he worked for a lumber company. Upon contracting malaria and dysentery, Céline was sent back to France. In 1919 he married Edith Follet, whose father was a director of a medical school. After studying medicine at the University of Rennes, Céline received his degree from the University of Paris in 1924. His doctoral thesis was entitled La Vie et l'Œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis. This biographical study was about Hungarian physician who discovered how to prevent childbed fever and what was most important, Semmelweis introduced antiseptic procedures into medicine.

In 1925 Céline left his practice, his wife, and his daughter to work as a doctor for the League of Nations. He traveled for three years in Switzerland, the Cameroons, the United States, Cuba, and Canada. While in Detroit he studied problems of social medicine at the Ford factories. In 1928 he opened a private practice in a suburb of Paris and in 1931 he was employed by a municipal clinic at Clichy, in Paris. Céline had an affair with Cillie Pam, a gymnastics instructor; she was a Jew, married and lived in Vienna. They met irregularly over the years. Eventually Pam broke up with Céline, who wrote in 1939 in a letter, that "[b]ecause of my anti-Semitic stance I've lost all my jobs (Clichy, etc.) and I'm going to court on March 8. You see, Jews can persecute too." ('Uncovering Céline' by Wyatt Mason, The New York Review of Books, January 14, 2010)

While working in Clichy, Céline wrote his first ballets and made his debut as a novelist with Journey to the End of the Night, and assumed the pseudonym Céline – it was the Christian name of his maternal grandmother. The book, which received the Renaudot Prize, was praised both the right-wing extremist Léon Daudet and Leon Trotsky, an exiled Communist leader. "Journey to the End of the Night is a novel of pessimism, a book dictated by terror in the face of life, and weariness of it, rather than by indignation. Active indignation is linked up with hope. In Céline’s book there is no hope." ('Novelist and Politician' by Leon Trotsky, The Atlantic, October 1935 Issue)

Ferdinand Bardamu, the protagonist, had much in common with Céline. Narrated in the first person in vernacular slang, the story covered author's life from 1913 to 1932, although the events are rearranged and modified for the tale. Bardamu says he is an anarchist. His prayer of social vengeance is: "A God who counts the minutes and the pence, a desperate God, sensual and grunting like a pig. A pig with wings of gold which tumbles through the world, with exposed belly waiting for caresses, lo, 'tis he, behold our master! Embrace, embrace!'" (Ibid., p. 8)

Céline follows Bardamu's adventures in the trenches of World War I, his experiences in Africa running a trading post, hellish work in a Ford factory in the United states, and his return to postwar Paris, where he sets up a medical practice. At every turn of the hallucinatory story, Bardamu encounters stupidity, suffering, and cruelty. "The workmen bending solicitously over the machines eager to keep them happy, are a depressing sight; one hands them the right-sized screws and still  more screws, instead of putting a stop once and for all this smell of oil, and this vapour which burns your throat and your eardrums from inside." (Ibid., p. 197)

Céline's second novel, Death on the Installment Plan (1936) also gained critical success. Dropping the name Bardamu, it followed the story of Ferdinand, but focused on his childhood, his violent father and his mother, who suffered from polio and earned living for the family as a saleswoman. "At the clinic where I work, the Linuty Foundation, I've had a lot of complaints about the stories I tell . . . My cousin Gustin Sabayot makes no bones about it, he says I should change my style," Céline wrote. (Ibid., translated from the French by Ralph Manheim, New Direction Pub. Corp., 1971, p. 16) Ferdinand helps the inventor and hot air ballooner, Courtial des Pereires, in his swindling plans.

Much of his life, Céline spent traveling: it was a futile attempt to escape the human condition. At the same time, Céline's travels provided him with new perspectives. "The farther away I go, the better," Bardamu says in Journey to the End of the Night. (Ibid., p. 97)

Upon becoming a communist, Céline visited the Soviet Union. He hoped in vain to have some of his ballets performed in Leningrad at the Theater Marinski. In the first of his notorious pamphlets, Mea Culpa, Céline declared his disenchantment with the Communist system. He began to work on a third novel, but interrupted it because he thought it was more urgent to try to prevent his country from entering a new war – this conflict would be disastrous, Céline believed. He produced anti-Semitic, pacifist pamphlets, two of which were condemned by the courts. In Bagatelles pour un massacre , a 118,000 word book, Céline argued, that there is an international Jewish conspiracy to start a world war; all the evil in the world is personified in the figure of the Jew. This work, in which a physician tries to have his ballet performed by a professional dance company, sold 75,000 copies by war's end. Although Céline's political views had much in common with the Nazi propaganda, he claimed that Hitler was a Jew. Once he interrupted a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Jewish Affairs talking about "Judeo-Marxist tyranny" with the remark: "Hey, why don't you talk about Aryan stupidity?" Fifty pairs of amateur detectives' eyes tried to identify the disturber.

In 1936 Céline met the dancer Lucette Almanzor; she was 23 and the author 41. Journey to the End of the Night had been dedicated to another dancer, Elisabeth Craig. Lucette became his third wife and faithfully stayed with her jealous husband through the hard years after World War II until his death. Her memoirs, depicting the marriage, appeared in 2001. At the outbreak of World War II, Céline served as a volunteer doctor on a French naval vessel, the Shella, which was sunk by a Nazi submarine. After the fall of France in 1940, he worked in municipal clinics in Satrouville and in a dispensary at Bezons. In 1943 he published Guignol's Band, set in London's underworld during the years of World War I, where the narrator witnesses the world collapsing.

To avoid avoid imprisonment, or death, during the Allied liberation of France, he fled to Berlin with Lucette – he had met too many times collaborationists and had formed too close ties with German authorities. And on the BBC, Céline was denounced as a traitor. The most notorious anti-Semitic writer, Robert Brasillach, was executed by firing squad in February 1945.

During his stay in Germany Céline was put behind bars for a short time. In Sigmaringen, where Céline found himself with Marshal Petain, members of the Vichy Government and French collaborators, he treated refugees of the regime. After journeying through bombed and devastated third Reich with his wife and their constant companion, the cat Bébert, he settled in Denmark, where he had deposited his savings. Céline was imprisoned over a years in the Danish prison Vesterfangsel and others, because of accusations of the Resistance, and finally released on the grounds of ill health. He spent some years in exile at Korsør on the Baltic Sea.

In Denmark, Céline was convicted in absentia by a civil court, but in 1951 he was cleared and permitted to return to France. The remaining decade of his life, Céline spent at Bellevue, on the outskirts of Paris. Well aware that he was a literary outcast, Céline continued to provoke his audiences. Gallimard, France's leading publishing house, published in the 1950s such of his works as Féerie pour une autre fois I-II (1952-54, Fable for Another Time), in which the role of the ballet-dancer is to restore universal harmony, and D'un château l'autre (1957, Castle to Castle), a satire of collaborationists in exile at Sigmaringen, the Vichy government, and the last months of the Third Reich – Gallimard had rejected Céline's (and Proust's) first submissions. In the latter novel the narrator hallucinates of seeing Jews everywhere.

The second part of Fable for Another Day took its subject from the Allied bombing of a sorting station not far from Céline's Montmartre apartment: "Aa, bom! bom! dear Maestro! Ah! it's horrible! Hold on while I bo . . . boke! Min! min! minate! Bombom! nable! . . . This hole! this hole! holy smoke! when you're ho! ho! holed up! What if we imp . . . skew . . . skew . . . imp . . . impaled your enemies? . . . Ah, speak to me, Maestro! speak to me!" (Ibid., translated and with an introduction by Mary Hudson, Bison Books, 2003, p. 47) In the middle of the chaos, the narrator is worried about his cat: "And then there's Bébert, another innocent, my cat . . . Don't tell me a cat's just something to pet. Not at all! A cat is bewitchment itself, tact emanating in waves . . . they go "grr . . . grr" and it's words . . . " (Ibid., p. 18) Céline's later fiction was badly received. Soon after finishing the novel Rigardon, he had a stroke. Céline died on July 1, 1961, of a ruptured aneurysm. He was buried in a small cemetery at Bas Meudon.

Céline's reputation as an outstanding novelist has been shadowed by his anti-Semitic pamphlets, although his importance as an innovative author has been recognized. An article in the British newspaper the Guardian in 2011 defined Céline as a great author and absolute bastard. When the French publishing house Gallimard considred in 2018 releasing a new edition of his pamphlets, it stirred a wide debate.

One of the charaters in Journey to the End of the Night says to Bardamu that the earth is dead: "we're only worms on its ruddy great carcass, eating its entrails all the time, only eating its poisons. . . . There's nothing you can do with us. We're rotten from birth." (Ibid., p. 326) Andre Gide concluded in his review of Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937): "[Céline] does everything he can to make us not to take him seriously." (French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture by David Carroll, Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 283) Numerous critics have made connection between Rabelais and Céline, who was well aware the links between them. In a short essay, 'Rabelais, il a raté son coup' (1957), he argued: "Rabelais really wanted an extraordinary, rich language. But all the rest have emasculated this language, to the point of making it quite insipid." (Language and Narration in Céline's Writings: The Challenge of Disorder by Ian Noble, Macmillan, 1987, p. 6) Céline often used in slang, which owed much to the Parisian poet Jehan Rictus (Gabriel Randon, 1867-1938). His attacks against war, colonialism, and the nightmarish conditions of urban life influenced such writers as Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and William Burroughs. All of Céline's books are more or less based on his own life. This is emphasized by the first-person narrative and his own name – Ferdinand, Ferdine, Dr. Destouches, Céline. In the post-war works the narrator is a Louis-Ferdinand Céline / Dr. Louis Destouches, except in Conversations with Professor Y, which is a series of imaginary interviews. His last three novels dealt with war.

For further reading: The Crippled Giant by M. Hindus (1950); Céline by M. Hanrez (1961); Louis-Ferninand Céline by D. Hayman (1965); Céline and His Vision by E. Ostrovski (1967); Voyeur, Voyant by E. Ostrovski (1971); Céline: The Novel as Delirium by A. Thiher (1972); Louis-Ferdinand Céline: misère et parole by F. Vitoux (1973); Céline: Man of Hate by B. Kanpp (1974); Céline: A Critical Biography by P. McCarthy (1975); Céline: le temps des espérances; 1894-1932 by F. Gibault (1977); The Inner Dream by J.H. Matthews (1978); Understading Céline, ed. W. Burns, J. Flynn and C.K. Mertz (1984); Language and Narration in Céline's Writings: The Challenge of Disorder by Ian Noble (1987); Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by W.K. Buckley (1988); Enfin Céline vint: A Contextualist Reading of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan by W. Burns (1989); Céline: A Biography by Frédéric Vitoux (1992); Céline and the Politics of Difference, edited by Rosemarie Scullion, Philip H. Solomon, Thomas C. Spear (1995); French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture by David Carroll (1995); The Life of Céline by Nicholas Hewitt (1999); Céline secret by Lucette Destouches and Véronique Robert (2001); D'un Céline l'autre, ed. David Alliot (2011); 'Céline: Great Author and 'Absolute Bastard'' by Andrew Gallix, Guardian, 31.1.2011; Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journeys to the Extreme by Damian Catani (2021). See also some other writers with Nazi sympathies: Knut Hamsun (Norwegian), Hanns Johst (German), Richard Walther Darré (German), E. E. Dwinger (German), George Sylvester Viereck (American), Lawrence Dennis (American), H. L. Mencken (American), Elizabeth Dilling (American), V.A. Koskenniemi (Finnish), Robert Brasillach (French), Henry de Montherlant (French), Jean Giono (French), Jean Cocteau (French), Alphonse de Châteaubriant (French), David Irving (British)

Selected works:

  • La Vie et l'Œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis, 1924
    - Mea Culpa & The Life and Work of Semmelweis (translated by Robert Allerton Parker, 1937)
    - Semmelweis (translated by John Harman, 2008)
  • Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932
    - Journey to the End of the Night (translated by John H. P. Marks, 1934; Ralph Manheim, 1983)
    - Niin kauas kuin yötä riittää (suomentanut Jukka Mannerkorpi, 1966; korjattu laitos, 2012)
  • Mort à crédit, 1936
    - Death on the Installment Plan (translated by John H.P. Marks, 1938; Ralph Manheim, 1966)
    - Kuolema luotolla (suom. Sirkka Aulanko, 1998)
  • Mea Culpa, 1937
    - Mea Culpa & The Life and Work of Semmelweis (translated by Robert Allerton Parker, 1937)
  • Bagatelles pour un massacre, 1937 [Trifles for a Massacre]
  • L'École des cadavres, 1938 [The School of Corpses]
  • Les Beaux Draps, 1941 [A Fine Mess]
  • Guignol's band, 1943
    - Guignol’s Band (translated by Bernard Frechtman and Jack T. Nile, 1954)
  • Casse-pipe, 1949
  • Féerie pour une autre fois I, 1952
    - Fable for Another Time = Férie pour une autre fois I, 2003 (translated and with an introduction by Mary Hudson, 2003)
  • Normance: Féerie pour une autre fois II, 1954
    - Normance (translated and with an introduction by Marlon Jones, 2009)
  • Entretiens avec le professeur Y, 1955
    - Conversations with Professor Y (translated by Stanford Luce, 1986)
  • D'un château l'autre, 1957
    - Castle to Castle (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1968)
    - Linnasta linnaan (suom. Ville Keynäs, 2016)
    - TV documentary: Siegmaringen!, 2004, prod. Filmtank Hamburg, Next Film, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), dir. Thomas Tielsch
  • Ballets sans musique, sans personne, sans rien, 1959
    - Ballets without Music, without Dancers, without Anything (translated by Thomas and Carol Christensen, 1999)
  • Nord, 1960
    - North (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1972)
  • Le Pont de Londres: Guignol's band II, 1964
    - London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II (translated by Dominic Di Bernardi, 1995)
  • Œuvres de Louis Ferdinand Céline, 1966 (ed. Jean A. Ducourneau)
  • Rigodon, 1969
    - Rigadoon (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1974)
  • Céline et l'actualité littéraire 1933-1961, 1986 (ed. Jean-Pierre Dauphin and Pascal Fouché)
  • Préfaces et dédicaces, 1987
  • Lettres des années noires, 1994 (ed. Philippe Alméras)
  • Lettres à Marie Canavaggia, 1995 (2 vols., ed. Jean Paul Louis)
  • Paris Céline, 2007 (ed. Laurent Simon)
  • Un autre Céline: Deux cahiers de prison; suivi de Lettres à Lucienne Delforge, 2008 (ed. Henri Godard)
  • Lettres, 2009 (eds. Henri Godard and Jean-Paul Louis)
  • Lettres à Milton Hindus: 1947-1949 / Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 2012 (ed. by Jean-Paul Louis)
  • Écrits polémiques, 2012 (établie, présentée et annotée par Régis Tettamanzi)
  • Lettres à Henri Mondor / Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 2013 (ed. by Cécile Leblanc)
  • Lettres à Alexandre Gentil: (1940-1948) / Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 2014 (edited by Olivier Cariguel)
  • Lettres à Pierre Monnier: 1948-1952, 2015 (ed. by Jean-Paul Louis)
  • Les pamphlets de Céline: lectures et enjeux, 2016 (eds. Johanne Bénard, David Décarie, Régis Tettamanzi)
  • Cahiers de prison: février-octobre 1946, 2019 (édition présentée et annotée par Jean Paul Louis)
  • Guerre, 2022 (édition établie par Pascal Fouché; avant-propos de François Gibault)
    - Sota (suomentanut Ville Keynäs, 2024)
  • Le manuscrit retrouvé de Mort à crédit. Fac-simile et transcription, 2023 (Editions Gallimard)
  • Romans, 1932-1934, 2023 (édition établie par Henri Godard avec Pascal Fouché et Régis Tettamanzi)

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