Louis-Ferdinand Céline, by Merlin Thomas, was first published in 1979 by Faber and Faber in England. The American edition, published by New Directions, reflects the book’s British origins. Conventions of punctuation adhere to British custom; the period, for example, follows the closing quotation marks, instead of being enclosed—American style—within the marks. Also, British orthographical rules obtain; hence, honor and splendor, for example, are spelled honour and splendour. Further, Thomas is somewhat given to trendy tautologies such as “plot-wise” and “at that point in time.” Yet, these are but minor stylistic irritants. The substance of the book is the ultimate determinant in evaluating its worth.
In this critical biography, Thomas undertakes a formidable task. The publishing world commonly assumes that biographies are highly popular with the reading public, since such readers seem to be voyeuristically captivated by intimate details about the famous as well as the infamous. Thomas, however, faced a problem of a different sort; his subject, Céline, suffered from neglect. To be sure, Thomas explicitly acknowledges that his first priority is an assessment of Céline’s art; yet, he concedes with equal candor that Céline had been ignored for political reasons rather than for reasons of legitimate literary criticism. Thomas thus sets for himself a delicate matrix: a balance between art and politics.
Moreover, it is axiomatic that best-selling works do not threaten the reading public by being challenging or innovative. Here, Thomas is on shaky ground in two respects. First, his subject was unpopular among the reading public for generally unacceptable political views. Second, Céline was certifiably an original, unique stylist; he crafted language to suit his purpose as very few of his predecessors in French literature were capable of doing. In fact, Thomas enumerates fifteen writers whom he considers equals of Céline and nine potential equals—a mere twenty-four writers from the Renaissance to the present—to underscore Céline’s unusual talents. Hence, Thomas is dealing with a novelist who is a political pariah as well as a gifted artist who defies convention to challenge the reader’s intelligence. As a consequence, Thomas’ work also will not have popular appeal.
Nevertheless, Thomas brings impressive credentials to bear on this task. He is a Fellow of New College, Oxford (England), in French. Further, he obtained access to Jean-Pierre Dauphin’s collection of Céline’s manuscripts and memorabilia, a source not readily available to earlier Céline biographers. In addition, Thomas’ fluent French enabled him to translate into English extensive passages from Céline’s novels and pamphlets. In a prefatory note, Thomas points out that his translations are deliberately literal, rather than idiomatic, in order to emphasize Céline’s innovative use of language—an important point in defending Thomas’ thesis that Céline’s artistry transcends his unpopular political views.
Also, Thomas states his critical biases explicitly. He views twentieth century French prose as something of a wasteland, with Céline a stellar exception in prose style. Céline’s uniqueness thus captures Thomas’ interest. Hence, between Thomas and Céline, there is a symbiotic match of biographer and subject.
Limning his study, Thomas explains his purpose on the basis of the paucity of material in English on Céline. Without cavil, Thomas’ point is well taken. Most critical works on Céline are in French. English-language studies on Céline are, indeed, scarce. In fact, Thomas cites in his annotated bibliography of works on Céline only one book published in the United States and another published in England, even though other English-language works on Céline are available. For example, Erika Ostrovsky’s Céline and His Vision (New York University Press) was published in 1967, with extensive notes and bibliography. The reasons for such omissions and for the brevity of Thomas’ annotated bibliography—no journal articles are cited—are not apparent. Still, interest in Céline has increased in France, and several recent studies of a serious nature have been published. Yet, Thomas rightly calls attention to two notable lacunae in Céline scholarship: some aspects of biography have been overlooked, and Céline’s later works have received short shrift. Nevertheless, Thomas does not set out to fill these lacunae. He does, however go a long way, despite protestations to the contrary, to overcome these gaps.
The basic facts of Céline’s life are clear cut. He was born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches on May 27, 1894. His father, Ferdinand Destouches, was an insurance man in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris; his mother, Louise-Céline Guillou, owned a lace shop. Céline grew up and was educated in Paris. He joined the army in 1912, was wounded in World War I in 1914, and was discharged in 1915 for disability. During a brief sojourn in London, he married Suzanne Germaine Nebout and then spent about a year in West Africa. In 1919, he returned to France, began to study medicine at Rennes, and—now divorced—married Edith Follet, daughter of the head of the medical school. A year later, they produced a daughter, Colette. In 1924, Céline qualified as a medical doctor, whereupon he traveled extensively through Europe, Africa, and America. Edith divorced him in 1928, and he returned to medical practice in France.
Shortly thereafter, in 1932, Céline launched a second and parallel career as a novelist. For that career, he adopted his mother’s Christian middle-name as a surname and pen name. Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Destouches became Louis-Ferdinand Céline in 1932 with the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). Céline had published before—medical treatises under the name Destouches. His parallel careers, however—doctor and novelist—converged in the late 1930’s: the thesis...
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