(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

To the studies of Céline by Madeleine Chapsal, Robert Poulet, and Pol Vandromme was recently added a major biography by Patrick McCarthy, a Professor of French at Haverford College. So carefully researched and written is this newest study that Céline may now have found his definitive biographer. McCarthy could hardly have found a more complex and contradictory writer and personality for his study.

Céline succeeds in giving a balanced evaluation of the man, his works, and his significance, both literary and political. McCarthy insists that the pamphlets which Céline wrote in the 1930’s must be included as an integral part of his works although they do not appear in the most complete edition of the Oeuvres complètes. He also wants to show that Céline’s later novels are artistic and are a further step in his evolution as a novelist. In seeking to understand the unrelenting pessimism which dominates both Céline’s creative works and his work as a doctor, McCarthy studies the era in which he lived and the personalities that influenced him, not neglecting the myths and fictions that grew up around this legendary character. McCarthy writes: “The purpose of this book is to separate the pieces—and then to put them back again.”

McCarthy arranges his biography in a traditional chronological manner, opening with a discussion of the first forty years of his subject’s life and of the publication of his first novel; he then analyzes the novel, its themes, and its history as a literary event. After a similar study of a second novel, he returns to examine the political situation in which Céline lived from 1932-1940, and the works he produced during that period. The next section deals with the war years and covers the period from 1940 until 1951, when Celine returned from exile. McCarthy then resumes his study of Céline’s careers of doctor and novelist, which continued into his last years. The book closes with a brief conclusion plus notes, bibliography, and index. This plan is a particularly suitable method, since Céline’s works are all to a great extent autobiographical. Hardly any details of his experiences, no matter how remote, fail to appear somewhere in his writing.

Louis Fuch Destouches, who used the pen name of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, was born in 1894 at Courbevoie-sur-Seine and died at Meudon in 1961. The men in the Destouches family were well-educated, while his mother’s family were shop-keepers. Céline grew up in Paris where his father worked for an insurance company and his mother kept a lace shop. It is this lower-middle class and its values that are reflected in the novels of Céline. Until he was eleven, Céline lived with his parents and attended school; he quit of his own volition. His parents sent him to study languages in Germany and England, but he was sent home from both. He worked at small jobs until he was eighteen, when, as a self-taught student, he passed the first part of the baccalauréat. He then joined the army, which soon made him long for freedom, but he saw an opportunity to overcome his pessimism through action. “I want to dominate,” he wrote, “I want to know and understand.” In 1914 he was wounded under enemy fire and became a national hero. In 1915 he left the military and made his first trip to Africa for a business concern. His first medical experience came after the war when he was employed by the Rockefeller Institute which had set up a group to fight tuberculosis. He showed slides of greatly enlarged microbes that badly frightened the people of Brittany. In 1919 he passed the second part of the baccalauréat and began his medical studies at Rennes. Marriage, a daughter, work at a Paris maternity hospital, divorce, and a job with the League of Nations followed. He became an expert on hygiene, social aspects of medicine, and the links between disease and poverty. In 1931 he returned to Paris, having traveled widely, and resumed the practice of medicine.

Voyage au bout de la nuit, his first novel, appeared in 1932 and caused a sensation and scandal. It was eagerly read, and both strongly defended and strongly condemned. McCarthy says:... Céline’s first novel draws a picture of life that he never changes. His particular brand of pessimism—his view of the world as dominated by triumphant evil—is the same in his last novel as in his first. His vision of human beings as hateful puppets pulled by an invisible hand remains unaltered.

In the novel, Bardamu, a soldier in Flanders, tries to escape through hospitals and lunatic asylums. Travels to Africa, New York, and Detroit follow, where Bardamu observes the colonial, economic, and industrial systems. All are dehumanizing. He returns to Paris where he becomes a doctor and practices in one of the most depressed areas. The depravity overwhelms him and he escapes again to a lunatic asylum. At the end, he watches the boats of the Seine carrying everything away to the end of the night: death.

Death, hate, and sex dominate this novel and are constant themes with Céline. Death is the unchanging fact of life which Céline never allows the reader to forget. Death is hideous, irrational, arbitrary, and ridiculous; it renders futile every moment of life. Nor is man capable of controlling his destiny. “The experience of feeling himself disintegrate is precisely what makes...

(The entire section is 2200 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Booklist. LXXIII, September 15, 1976, p. 109.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLIII, August, 1976, p. 76.

New York Times Book Review. July 18, 1976, p. 1.

New Yorker. LII, September 13, 1976, p. 154.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, May 17, 1976, p. 51.

Saturday Review. XXVII, April 7, 1976, p. 27.