Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline is one author you can love or hate, but you cannot ignore. Céline’s real name was Louis-Ferdinand Destouches:  the Céline was his grandmother’s name. Céline was a practicing doctor (much like William Carlos Williams), an anti-Semitic Nazi supporter, and a modern stylist who changed the voice of fiction for future authors.

One of the first things you notice about Céline is that he writes a very scattered prose, generally linked together with his signature ellipses. He writes as people think, not in nice complete sentences but in bursts of insight. His ellipses compare nicely to the colons employed by António Lobo Antunes. Céline’s major influence on literature was his successful use of argot—street slang—in his novels. Zola had unsuccessfully attempted this use of street slang years before but it was not well received. It may be argued that Céline changed the voice of fiction forever.

Here is a snippet of Céline taken from Normance, part of an extended description of the bombing of Paris.

 The sky tears open to the left, right there! … brrac! in the South! so it has to be Drancy! Drancy’s taking a pounding! a golden cataract from on high … a river of clouds … yellow … and then green … you don’t see this every day, this bank of flames cascading, spurting, flooding over … I already told you about it, but all the same, really, you’d think the sky itself was melting … and from below you can see streets rising from the ground … lifting right up … going up like snakes on fire … twisting … bending from cloud to cloud … a whole church takes off, goes belly up, the spike of its bell tower burning, like some kind of giant thumb! … it’s amazing! flipped over on us! … the church in Auteuil … I told you! … upside down … but not burning too much, really … more like reflections … ah, for you it’s different … it sails on! … takes off, what do you know? … painting’s not my thing, I’m not rendering the effects well … the effects! I’m not up to the demands of the deluge! you’d need a pictorial type … all I have is a little talent in chronicling … Ah, but Jules, him, you bet I’m keeping an eye on him! an artist? he’s more than just an artist! I don’t let him out of my sight! let him pitch! glide! he won’t fool me!

Céline’s work is clearly autobiographical at times but we should never forget that it is still fiction. Here is a two-part interview with Céline that provides some good background information (in French):

And the second part:

I have used the following bibliography to guide my reading of Céline:

  • La Vie et l’œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis, Ph. D. thesis, 1924 (English: The Life and Work of Semmelweis, tr. by Robert Allerton Parker, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1937)
  • La Quinine en thérapeutique, 1925, published as Docteur Louis Destouches (untranslated)
  • Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932 (English: Journey to the End of the Night, tr. by John H. P. Marks, 1934)
  • L’Église, 1933 (English: The Church, tr. by Mark Spitzer and Simon Green, Green Integer, 2003)
  • Hommage à Émile Zola, a 1933 speech published in 1936
  • Mort à crédit, 1936 (English: Death on Credit, tr. by John H. P. Marks, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1938 – aka Death on the Installment Plan (US), tr. by Ralph Manheim)
  • Mea culpa, 1936 (English: Mea Culpa, tr. by Robert Allerton Parker, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1937)
  • Bagatelles pour un massacre, 1937 (English: Trifles for a Massacre, translated anonymously, available as free .pdf)
  • L’École des cadavres, 1938 (English: School for Corpses, untranslated)
  • Les Beaux Draps, 1941 (English: A Nice Mess, untranslated)
  • Guignol’s Band, 1944 (English: Guignol’s Band, tr. by Bernard Frechtman and Jack T. Nile, 1954, Vision Press., London)
  • Réponses aux accusations formulées contre moi par la justice française au titre de trahison et reproduites par la Police Judiciaire danoise au cours de mes interrogatoires, pendant mon incarcération 1945–1946 à Copenhague, 6 November 1946 (English: Reply to Charges of Treason Made by the French Department of Justice, tr. by Julien Cornell, South Atlantic Quarterly 93, no. 2, 1994)
  • Casse-pipe, 1949 (English: Cannon-fodder, tr. by Kyra De Coninck and Billy Childish, Hangman, 1988)
  • Féerie pour une autre fois, 1952 (English: Fable for Another Time, tr. by Mary Hudson, U of Nebraska Press, 2003)
  • Normance − Féerie pour une autre fois II, 1954 (English: Normance: Fable for Another Time II, tr. by Marlon Jones, Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
  • Entretiens avec le Professeur Y, 1955 (English: Conversations with Professor Y, tr. by Stanford Luce, Dalkey Archive Press, 2006)
  • D’un château l’autre, 1957 (English: Castle to Castle, tr. by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, New York, 1968)
  • Nord, 1960 (English: North, tr. by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, New York, 1972)
  • Le Pont de Londres − Guignol’s band II, published posthumously in 1964 (English: London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II, tr. by Dominic Di Bernardi, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995)
  • Rigodon, completed in 1961 but published posthumously in 1969 (English: Rigadoon, tr. by Ralph Manheim, Delacorte Press, New York, 1974)
  • Trifles for a massacre, first edition in English, Les Editions de La Reconquête, Asuncion, 2010.

Right now I’m reading Normance which is the last of Céline’s major works translated into English. I know there are those that find Céline in translation difficult to accept since the argot of France is not the slang of America. The problem, I understand, is that in translation the novels lose their “frenchness.” I suppose this is a concern but since most people don’t know what slang is French and what is English or American, I don’t suspect it should interfere with the reading.

5 responses

  1. From “Uncovering Céline”
    Wyatt Mason
    The New York Review of Books

    Bagatelles pour un massacre [Trifles for a Massacre]
    by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
    Paris: Denoël, 379 pp. (1937)

    L’École des cadavres [The School of Corpses]
    by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
    Paris: Denoël, 272 pp. (1938)

    Les Beaux Draps [A Fine Mess]
    by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
    Paris: Les Nouvelles Éditions Françaises, 158 pp. (1941)

    Normance
    by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, translated from the French and with an introduction by Marlon Jones
    Dalkey Archive, 371 pp., $14.95 (paper)

    1.

    Louis-Ferdinand Destouches met Cillie Pam in Paris, at the Café de la Paix, in September 1932. Destouches was a physician who worked at a public clinic in Clichy treating poor and working-class patients; Pam was a twenty-seven-year-old Viennese gymnastics instructor eleven years his junior on a visit to the city. Destouches suggested a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne, took Pam to dinner later that night, and afterward took her home. Two weeks together began, after which Pam returned to her work and life in Vienna. Over the next seven years, they saw each other infrequently but corresponded regularly. Pam, who was Jewish, married and had a son. Destouches, who wrote in his free time, became famous shortly after their brief affair, his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, published at the end of 1932 under the pseudonym “Céline” (his maternal grandmother’s first name), proving an enormous success. In February 1939, Destouches received word that Pam had lost her husband: he had been seized, sent to Dachau, and killed. On February 21, Destouches wrote to Pam, who had fled abroad:

    Dear Cillie,

    What awful news! At least you’re far away, on the other side of the world. Were you able to take a little money with you? Obviously, you’re going to start a new life over there. How will you work? Where will Europe be by the time you receive this letter? We’re living over a volcano.

    On my side, my little dramas are nothing compared to yours (for the moment), but tragedy looms nonetheless….

    Because 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.

    How a reader responds to this letter is, I suspect, a fair predictor of how capable he or she might be of tolerating the extreme disjunctions that predominate in the life and art of its author. One of Céline’s biographers, for example, describes the letter as possessing “a curious blend of concern and sheer tactless selfishness,” a response that itself seems to exhibit its own curious blend of sheer shortsightedness and apologism. Another biographer calls it, reasonably if inadequately, “astonishing,” but does offer the useful detail that Pam, upon receipt of the letter, “never saw [Destouches] again and stopped writing.”

    My own sense is that such a letter would astonish most readers–words of condolence over anti-Semitic violence do not often contain anti-Semitic sympathies–except those who have read not only Céline’s novels but also what have been inaccurately termed, for generations, his “anti-Semitic pamphlets.” Alas, no English-speaking reader who does not know French could make so comprehensive a survey. Though all eight of Céline’s novels are now available in dependable English translations, the so-called anti-Semitic pamphlets have never been officially published in English. Having recently read them in French in bootleg editions readily available online,[1] I should report that the letter above, taken in that larger, less available context, isn’t astonishing in the least. Rather, it’s exactly the sort of letter one would expect from an anti-Semite of Céline’s tireless and impenitent ardor, a writer who, from 1937 to 1944, spent all his flagrant literary energy and aptitude calling–shouting–for the death of every Jew in France (for a start).

    Read the rest of this article at the New York Review of Books website.

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  2. I HAVE NO EVIDENCE OF CELINE BEING TRUE TO NAZI IDEOLOGY… I KNOW HE WAS AROUND IN FRANCE WHEN THE NAZIS INVADED, I KNOW THAT HE, ALLEGEDLY, FLEW TO DENMARK WHEN THE NAZIS BEGAN TO LOSE THEIR GRIP ON EUROPE.. AS FOR HIS NOVELS, WHICH I DO ENJOY, DUE TO THEIR IRONIC SENSE (AS I READ IT) REGARDS THE TRUE NATURE HUMANITY – THAT NOT EVERYTHING IN LIFE IS A ROSEY COLOURED OPTIC THRU WHICH THE MASSES LOOK VIEW LIFE… I WOULD LIKE YOU TO DIRECT ME TO THE EVIDENCE OF CELINE’S NAZI SYMPATHIES – IF YOU CAN. COULDN’T WE SAY, BY THE STANDARDS OF YOUR VIEWPOINT, THAT PIAF AND THE VICHY REGIME WERE ALSO NAZI SYMPATHISERS FOR NOT ENGAGING WITH AN IMPOSING FOE?
    AS FOR YOUR PANAORAMIC VIEWS R.E. COMMUNISM… I WOULDN’T EVEN SAY, FIRST AND FOREMOST, THAT COMMUNISM WAS ANYWHERE IN EVIDENCE – IN THE EASTERN BLOC COUNTIRES… MERELY ANOTHER FORM OF REPRESSION THAT SWEPT AWAY THE TYRANNY OF THE TSARS… THE RUSSIAS HAVING A DEEP SEATED TYRANNICAL/REPRESSED STATE OF AFFAIRS WITH THEIR HISTORICAL RULERS…
    IN MY VIEW – THE SO-CALLED COMMMUNISM OF THE EAST WAS VERY MUCH COUNTER REVOLUTINARY IN ESSENCE AND BETRAYED THE ANCIENT PRINCIPLES OF LIBERTARIANISM AND TOLERANCE THAT THE OPPRESSED WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE IMBIBED WITH THE FIGHT FOR THEIR OWN SOCIAL “LIBERATION”…
    THIS COULD BE A VERY CONVOLUTED ARGUMENT… AND WE CANNOT JUST GLOSS OVER WHAT IS…
    REMEMBER – DURING THE EARLY 1900’S ONE HAD TO MAKE A CHOICE – THEM OR US – N OUR CASE IT WAS BECOME A NAZI OR COMMUNIST – AMERICA HAVING A BACK SEAT IN REGARDS TO THIS…
    AS FOR TRAINS – THEY CAN RUN MISERABLY OUT OF SYNCH WITH THEIR TIMETABLES IF IT MEANS GAINING SOME SEMBLANCE F PERSONAL LIBERTY AND SELF-EXPRESSION ETC ETC ETC ETC…
    SO YOUR EVIDENDE R.E. CELINE WOULD BE WELCOME… IF YOU HAVE THE MEANS – IT’D BE COOL TO SEE SOME CELINE INTERVIEWS SUBTITLED (VIA YOU TUBE)… AS IT WOULD BE INTERESTING TO HEAR/READ HIS STANCE… BEARINGIN MIND, AGAIN AS I READ IT, THAT THIS FELLA WAS VERY CYNCIAL REGARDS THE ATTITUDES HIS FELLOW MAN HAVE/HAD FOR ONE ANOTHER.
    ALL THE BEST
    JONATHAN
    P.S FORGIVE SPELLING AND GRAMMATICAL ERRORS..

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  3. WHERE IS THE PROOF THAT CELINE WAS A NAZI AND NOT JUST A WRITER INDULGING WITH THE SITUATIONS HE LIVED – TO PARAPHRASE HE WAS MERLEY DEALING WITH THE CRUMMINESS OF HIS FELLOW MAN…

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    • First, there was no mention that Céline was a Nazi … only that he supported at least some of the aims of the German National Socialist Party and this is a matter of record, independent of Céline’s writing and by his own admission. Today there are any number of people who see good or reasonable things in Communism but they are not Communists and since there are also many things in Communism that are seen as reprehensible, few people would ever admit to being a Communist any longer.

      Considering Céline’s open anti-Semitism, his support for the Nazi Party might not have been focused totally on the “good” parts. We can say that Mousellini made the trains run on time, but not that he was a real swell guy.

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