Céline, Louis-Ferdinand


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). 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.

“In this world we spent our time killing or adoring, or both together. ‘I hate you! I adore you!’ We keep going, we fuel and refuel, we pass on our life to a biped of the next century, with frenzy, or any cost, as if it were the greatest of pleasures to perpetuate ourselves, as if, when all’s said and done, it would make us immortal. One way or another, kissing is as indispensable as scratching.” (from Journey to the End of Night)

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 listen to them become trombones, full orchestras, marshaling yards…” 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.”

“Those who talk about the future are scoundrels. It is the present that matters. To evoke one’s posterity is to make a speech to maggots.” (from Journey to the End of the Night, 1932)

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. 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 minutes and pennies, a desperate sensual God, who grunts like a pig. A pig with golden wings, who falls and falls, always belly side up, ready for caresses, that’s him, our master. Come, kiss me.”

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. “It’s sickening to see the workers bent over their machines, intent on giving them all possible pleasure, calibrating bolts and more bolts, instead of putting an end once and for all to this stench of oil, this vapour that burns your throat and attacks your eardrums from inside. It’s not shame that makes them bow their head. You give in to noise as you give in to war. At the machines you let yourself go with three ideas that are wobbling about at the top of your head. And that’s the end.”

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…” Céline wrote. Ferdinand leaves homes, and helps the inventor and hot air ballooner, Courtial des Pereires, in his swindling plans.

Much of his life, Céline spent traveling; as a prophet of apocalypse, it was a political act for him, an escape from the modern world. At the same time, Céline’s travels provided him with new perspectives. “The further away I go, the better,” Bardamu says in Journey to the End of the Night.

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 talking about “Judeo-Marxist tyranny” with the remark “Hey, why don’t you talk about Aryan stupidity?”

“Neptune has finally wed Venus  even Gods can’t screw around forever.” (from Ballets without Music, without Dancers, without Anything, 1959)

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. During his stay in Germany he was arrested 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. “Oh, many thanks! Many thanks! I’m raging! Fuming! Panting! With hatred! Hypocrites! Jugheads! You can’t fool me!” (in the preface to the 1952 Gallimard edition of Journey) 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: “Blang! Kzeem! Kaboom! . . . That’s the truth of the Deluge! I’ve got nothing in my cellar! . . . so I have no right . . . blamm and beboom! the sky may be torn open, that doesn’t make me any better, more respectable, less questionable, I’ve still got no fucking business down there since there’s nothing in my cellar . . .” In the middle of the chaos, the narrator is worried about the cat, “… damn it! I mean, that cat couldn’t care less!” 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-Semitism and anti-Communism, although his importance as an innovative author has been recognized. Andre Gide once said: “It is not reality which Céline paints but the hallucinations which reality provokes.” Bardamu’s conclusion was that people are nothing but “packages of tepid, half-rotten viscera”; disease, loss, and death are the basic elements of human life. Like Rabelais, he was a comic, a storyteller, fascinated by excess. In a short essay, ‘Rabelais, il a raté son coup (1957)’, he said: “I have had in my life the same vice as Rabelais. I too have spent my time getting into desperate situations.” 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); Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, ed. 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 F. Vitoux (1992); Céline and the Politics of Difference, edited by Rosemarie Scullion, Philip H. Solomon, Thomas C. Spear (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). 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)
    – Journey to the End of the Night (translated by 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)
    – Death on the Installment Plan (translated by 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
  • L’École des cadavres, 1938
  • Les Beaux Draps, 1941
  • 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)
  • Lettres à Henri Mondor / Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 2013 (ed. by Cécile Leblanc)
  • Lettres à Alexandre Gentil: (1940-1948) / Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 2014 (ed. 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)
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand

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