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CELINE: His Life and Correspondence

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In a well-known essay about Voyage au bout de la nuit, Leon Trotsky wrote that its author, French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline “walked into great literature as other men walk into their own homes.” Indeed, Voyage was a revolutionary book, both in terms of content and of style, a book that immediately turned literature upside down. Written in a popular and colloquial language, it presents a dark and pessimistic vision of mankind as well as a nihilistic philosophy that drastically changed not only the way many novelists wrote, but also what they wrote. In France, traditional academic literature became practically obsolete overnight with the publication of Voyage while in the United States, several generations of writers owe a tremendous debt to Céline and his novel. 

Céline wrote other books, especially Mort à crédit, the two volumes of Guignol’s Band and of Féerie pour une autre fois, D’un château l’autre, Nord and Rigodon, in which he went further in his experimentations with style and recounted darker and darker adventures in a growing atmosphere of chaos, madness and paranoia. Today Céline is almost unanimously considered one of the two greatest and most influential French novelists of the twentieth-century, along with Marcel Proust, and one of the giants of modern literature.

In fact, in the title of one of the first books devoted to Céline, American critic Milton Hindus used the noun “giant” to describe him, but modified it with the adjective “crippled.” That title, Céline: the Crippled Giant, was partly the result of an unfortunate encounter between the two men, but it also reflected the ambiguous attitude of Hindus, who was Jewish, toward Céline, then in exile in Denmark as a consequence of the polemical and strongly antisemitic pamphlets he wrote between 1937 and 1941, Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres and Les Beaux draps. Although he justified his behavior and his antisemitism in particular by his desire to prevent a new war and although he never actively collaborated with the Germans, Céline saw his reputation irremediably tarnished by those books.  

Céline, the pseudonym of Louis Ferdinand Destouches (1894-1961), was not just a writer. He was very much involved in some of the major events of the first part of the twentieth century, notably the two world wars. He fought and was wounded in the first one while his political writings prior and during the second one forced him to flee to Sigmaringen with the most notorious collaborationists and the members of the Vichy regime before a grueling trip took him to Denmark where he was imprisoned for over a year and remained in exile until 1951. In addition, his extensive travels on three continents, mainly as a hygienist with the League of Nations, allowed him to witness the effects of colonialism in Africa and those of capitalism in the United States as well as the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Finally, as a medical doctor who worked with the poor and the destitute, he became intimately familiar with human misery and suffering.  

Not surprisingly, with so much material at Céline’s disposal, his novels, written in the first person, are heavily autobiographical. Voyage recounts experiences that mirror his own, on the battlefields of World War I, in colonial Africa, in capitalist America and in the poor suburbs of Paris where the hero, Bardamu, practises medicine. Mort à crédit primarily deals with the childhood of the physician-narrator, a childhood more miserable but still very reminiscent of the author’s, while Guignol’s Band has been inspired by the time Destouches spent in London after his war injury. Féerie pour une autre fois is loosely based on his life in Paris during the war and but also on his time in prison in Denmark. As for the last three novels, they rather faithfully chronicle his stay in Sigmaringen, his epic adventures in bombed-out and war-ravaged Germany and his escape to Denmark.     

If Céline’s novels reflect his own life in a more or less novelized form, his correspondence sheds an even more direct light on the many events he experienced and on his ideas and beliefs. Indeed, from his first stay abroad, in Germany at the age of thirteen, to the eve of his death when he wrote his publisher about his last novel, he sent thousands of letters that faithfully chronicle his life and present an image of him and of his adventures that complements and sometimes contradicts his public persona in a fascinating way. In fact, the publication of his Lettres in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade in 2009 was a major literary event.

Indeed, Céline’s correspondence often reveals different sides or even different versions of the events and experiences recounted in the novels and, even more importantly, points of view that do not always match those of the fictive narrators or even those of the public Céline. For instance, the child who writes to his parents from Germany is polite, thoughtful and affectionate, quite the opposite of Ferdinand, his counterpart of Mort à crédit. Likewise, even though his letters from the front reveal some of the horrors of World War I, the young man who writes them shows great courage as well as strong patriotic feelings and a deep hatred of the enemy, unlike the hero-narrator of Voyage au bout de la nuit whose bleak and nihilistic vision of mankind was shaped by his war experience. It is only in Africa, two years later, that the young Destouches presents ideas about war resembling those that appear in the novel. As for the depiction of Africa in the correspondence, it reminds the reader of somes pages in Voyage, but in his letters Destouches occasionally manifests an enthusiasm and an entrepreneurial spirit that is foreign to Bardamu. The same can be said about medicine in which Destouches shows a genuine interest that is usually not shared by his cynical narrator. Soon, however, the latter’s philosophy appears more and more in the letters, as shown by those to Élie Faure and, even much earlier, by these lines written to Blanchette Fermon:

Nothing is ever entirely our fault – but neither are we guilty of the sadness that mounts within us and with each passing day replaces the wish to die, and then every evening formulates itself more precisely in our hearts. – life is a melancholy farce, believe you me. A sinister farce, if we abandon the few flowers we might have plucked in the gardens of youth.

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