Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (1894–1961)

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French writer.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, originally named Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, was born into a lower-middle-class family in Courbevoie, a Paris suburb. The aristocratic "des" in his family name was a distant memory: his father was a low-level employee at an insurance company and his mother was a milliner. Céline spent his youth in Paris, where his parents had moved. He also spent part of his school years in Germany and England. Before World War I he tried his hand at selling fabric and then jewelry. In 1912 he joined the cavalry. On 27 October 1914 he was seriously wounded in the arm. His convalescence lasted several months, and he was declared permanently unfit for service. During the war he spent time in London and Africa. After the war he took advantage of a special dispensations for veterans that allowed him to earn his baccalauréat degree and study medicine. His first written work, on the life of the physician Ignaz Phillipp Semmelweis (1818–1865), was his doctorial thesis in medicine. From 1924 to 1927 he worked for the public health division of the League of Nations, traveling throughout the world to spread the gospel of hygiene. At the end of his assignments he established a practice in Clichy, in northern Paris. In 1929 he began work on a novel. That book, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night, 1934) immediately established his reputation as a great and innovative novelist, an anarchist by virtue of both the violently antimilitaristic and anticolonialist positions he endorsed and his destructured use of language, marked by his original use of slang. His hero-narrator, Bardamu, who owed a great deal to Céline's own experiences in the Great War and in Britain, Africa, and the United States, became as famous as his creator.

The novel was followed by a literary scandal when it failed to win the Prix Goncourt after being considered the front-runner. It was supported in particular by a number of leftist writers, such as Louis Aragon (1897–1982), who misjudged the author's politics. Céline's true colors were revealed to the Left in 1936 with the publication of Mea Culpa, a critical essay on his travels in the Soviet Union. That same year he published his second novel, Mort à crédit (1938; Death on the Installment Plan), whose story chronologically precedes Voyage au bout de la nuit but did not enjoy the same success. In 1933 he tried his hand at theater with L'Eglise (The church), a satirical play based on his experiences with the League of Nations.

Success returned in 1937 with Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a massacre), a pamphletessay in which Céline used his rich and ever more hallucinatory style in the service of an extremely virulent racism and anti-Semitism. This was not an isolated act of provocation, since Céline committed the same offense twice more with L'école des cadavres (1938; School of corpses) and Les beaux draps (The fine mess) in the midst of the Occupation, in 1941. Céline frequented the most violently anti-Semitic circles of the times and published thirty-five articles in the collaborationist press. His unbridled anti-Semitism appalled even the German writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), whom he met while the latter was in occupied Paris.

In 1944 he published a new novel, Guignol's Band. After the Allied landing he fled to Germany in the hope of reaching Denmark, where he had savings. He arrived there in March 1945, having passed through Baden-Baden and Sigmaringen, where the elites of collaborationist Paris and of the Vichy government, including Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) and Pierre Laval (1883–1945), had taken refuge. He was arrested in Copenhagen on 17 December 1945. From prison, and later from the hospitals where he was detained, he prepared his defense, wrote a voluminous correspondence, and began work on Féerie pour une autre fois (1952–1954; Fable for another time). In 1948 he published a violent response to Sartre entitled "A l'agité du bocal" (To the shit-disturber). In 1950 Céline was tried in absentia. He was declared a national disgrace and sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of fifty thousand francs. He was ultimately pardoned the following year and was able to return to France. He settled in Meudon and took refuge in his writing, pursuing his stylistic explorations. Féerie pour une autre fois did not attract a wide readership but interest revived somewhat with D'un château l'autre (1957; Castle to Castle, 1968), an autobiographical novel recounting his flight from France in 1944–1945 to escape justice. He went on to publish Nord (North) in 1960 and finished Rigodon (Rigadoon) in 1961, just before his death on 1 July 1961.

In a certain sense Céline wrote his own epitaph with the opening of D'un château l'autre: "Frankly, just between you and me, I'm ending up even worse than I started" (1997, p. 1). A brilliant and acclaimed stylist, a fanatical anti-Semite, and a raging misanthrope, Céline is at once one of the greatest French writers of the twentieth century and one of its most unpleasant and controversial personalities.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Fascism; France; Jünger, Ernst.


Primary Sources

Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Romans. 4 vols. Paris, 1978–1993.

——. Castle to Castle. Normal, Ill., 1997.

Secondary Sources

Gibault, François. Céline. 2nd ed. 3 vols. Paris, 1985.

Milton, Hindus. The Crippled Giant: A Literary Relationship with Louis-Ferdinand Céline. 1950. London, 1986.

Nicolas BeauprÉ