Louis-Ferdinand Céline 1894–1961
(Pseudonym of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) French novelist, pamphleteer, and dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Céline's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 15, and 47.
A highly influential prose stylist and controversial polemicist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline is widely regarded as one of the most important European novelists of the twentieth century. His first two novels, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night) and Mort à crédit (1936; Death on the Installment Plan), earned immediate critical admiration and established his reputation as a daring literary innovator and iconoclast. Distinguished for his acerbic misanthropy, black humor, and apocalyptic vision of modern civilization, Céline broke from conventional French literature with his "style télégraphique," a fragmented, elliptical prose style infused with convulsive obscenity, neologism, lower-class slang, and delirious diatribe. Though condemned as a vehement anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator—unfortunate biographical facts that have long maligned his literary reputation—the startling intensity and nihilism of his early novels exerted a pervasive and lasting influence on contemporary European and American literature.
Born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in Courbevoie, France, Céline was an only child raised by his mother, a lace merchant, and father, an insurance businessman, in a lower middle-class Paris suburb called the Passage Choiseul; his pseudonym derives from the first name of his maternal grandmother. Céline was educated at local schools and, during his early adolescence, sent abroad to study in England and Germany, where it was hoped he would acquire marketable language skills for a business career. After working a series of odd jobs, in 1912 he enlisted in the French calvary and attained the rank of sergeant. During the First World War, Céline sustained serious arm and head wounds in the line of duty, for which was hospitalized and bestowed a medal of honor. He was he was reassigned to the French consulate in London in 1915. While in London, he met and unofficially married his first wife, Suzanne Nebout, a barmaid. Upon his discharge from the military in 1916, Céline abandoned London and his wife for West Africa, where he worked for a trading company in Cameroon. He returned to France the next year after contracting malaria and dysentery. Following employment with Henri de Graffigny, publisher of the inventor's magazine Eurêka, Céline worked for the Rockefeller Foundation as a traveling lecturer on tuberculosis in 1918. The next year he began his medical studies at the University of Rennes and married Edith Follet, daughter of the school's director. Céline completed his medical degree in 1924, along with his first published work, a doctoral dissertation entitled La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis (1924; The Life and Work of Semmelweis). In 1925 Céline left his wife and daughter, as well as a lucrative medical career under his father-in-law, to work as a doctor for the League of Nations, a position that took him to Africa, Canada, Cuba, and the United States. With his divorce made final in 1926, Céline began an affair with American dancer Elizabeth Craig, the first of several dancers with whom he was involved. In 1928 he resettled in Clichy, France, where for the next decade he worked as a physician for the poor, in private practice and at a local clinic, and began to write. With the 1932 publication of his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, Céline won instant acclaim and a nomination for the prestigious Goncourt Prize; he was awarded the lesser Théophraste Renaudot Prize due to jury politics. The next year he published his only drama, L'Eglise (1933), a satirical rendering of his medical experiences in Africa, America, and postwar France; the work, completed in 1927, represents a preliminary version of Journey to the End of the Night. After the 1936 publication of Death on the Installment Plan, Céline traveled to Russia to collect his royalties and reacted strongly against the hypocrisy and exploitation of the communist system, which he denounced in his first polemical tract Mea Culpa (1936; published with The Life and Work of Semmelweis). Céline published several additional political texts, including the venomous anti-semitic pamphlets Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937; Trifles for a Massacre), L'Ecole des cadavres (1938; School for Corpses), and Les Beaux Draps (1941; A Nice Mess), in which he alleged an international Jewish conspiracy to bring war, professed his own pacifism, and criticized French society. During the Second World War, Céline worked as a doctor on a French arms transport ship, published the first volume of Guignol's Band (1944), and contributed writings to collaborationist journals under the Nazi Occupation of France. Labeled a traitor and fearful of reprisal from the Resistance, Céline fled France in 1944 with Lucette (Lili) Almanzor, a former ballet dancer whom he married in 1943. Upon their arrival in Copenhagen, Céline was arrested by Danish officials at the insistence of the French government and incarcerated for fourteen months. After his release, due to poor health, he remained in Denmark for the next five years. In 1951 a French court found Céline guilty of treason, though a military tribunal granted him amnesty, whereupon he returned to France with Lili and settled in the Paris suburb of Meudon. During the remainder of his life, Céline practiced medicine among the poor and continued to write. He completed several additional novels, Féerie pour une autre fois (1952) and its sequel Normance (1954), and the trilogy D'un château l'autre (1957; Castle to Castle), Nord (1960; North), and Rigodon (1969; Rigadoon). His affinity for dance is also reflected in compositions for ballet contained in Bagatelles pour un massacre and Ballets san musique, sans personne, sans rien (1959; Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything). Céline suffered a fatal stroke at his Meudon home in 1961, a day after completing Rigadoon. A sequel to Guignol's Band, Le Pont de Londres (1964; London Bridge), was discovered among his papers and posthumously published.
Céline's picaresque fiction recounts the author's childhood, wartime experiences, foreign travels, and medical career through the episodic misadventures of rogue protagonists whose first-person narratives are an amalgam of autobiography, invective, social satire, hyperbole, and hallucinatory paranoia. Journey to the End of the Night features Ferdinand Bardamu, a disillusioned French soldier who is seriously wounded during the First World War. After convalescing in various hospitals, reflecting on the horror and absurdity of war, and suffering a nervous breakdown, Bardamu embarks for Africa, where he witnesses the greed and exploitation of European colonialism as a trade representative deep in the jungle—an episode that resembles Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Disgusted with his position and the oppressive climate, he abandons his post to travel to America, where he experiences alienation and poverty in New York and Detroit. While in Detroit he takes a mindless factory job with Ford Motor Company and falls in love with a benevolent prostitute named Molly. Bardamu finally returns to France, signifying his resolve to confront rather than flee reality, where he completes his medical degree and works as a doctor among the working-class poor then at a private insane asylum. The novel is punctuated by recurring encounters with Bardamu's alter ego Léon Robinson, whom Bardamu meets during the war, in Africa, America, and again in France where, after becoming entangled in an assassination plot that results in his blindness, Robinson is shot to death by his estranged fiancée. Death on the Installment Plan is a bildungsroman based on Céline's traumatic childhood and adolescence prior to his military enlistment. Amid the poverty and squalor of suburban Paris, the protagonist, Ferdinand, endures the derision, lunacy, and physical abuse of his father, a feckless insurance clerk, and tenacious mother, a crippled lace peddler who operates a small shop below their apartment. After leaving public school, Ferdinand works several menial jobs and is dismissed in disgrace from each. Through the intervention of his kindly uncle, he is sent to a boarding school in England, where he has an affair with the headmaster's suicidal wife. Back in France, Ferdinand finds employment with Courtial des Pereires, a quack inventor and publisher of pseudo-science manuals. When Courtial's office is destroyed by defrauded subscribers, Ferdinand accompanies Courtial to the countryside to pursue an ill-conceived agricultural scheme that ends in police intervention and Courtial's suicide. Ferdinand is returned to his family and the novel ends with his decision to join the army. Ferdinand reappears in Guignol's Band, which centers upon Céline's experiences in London during the First World War. The word "guignol" is a double reference to a children's marionette show and a ridiculous person or buffoon. While in London, Ferdinand becomes involved in the underworld of prostitution and drugs through dealings with Cascade, a pimp who heads a large criminal operation. When Ferdinand is implicated in the death of a pawnbroker, he is pursued throughout the city by the police and Cascade's henchmen. At the French Consulate, where he seeks to rejoin the army, Ferdinand meets Hervé Sosthène de Rodiencourt, a mysterious occult explorer who is hired by an eccentric military officer to design a new gas mask for the British army. In the end, Sosthène's takes Ferdinand on as his assistant, London Bridge, the second part of Guignol's Band, picks up where the first leaves off. While working on the gas mask with Sosthène under the direction of Colonel J. F. C. O'Collighan, Ferdinand remains in hiding and falls in love with the colonel's young niece, Virginia. The project is eventually abandoned when the colonel disappears and Ferdinand plans to flee the country with Virginia and Sosthène, who experiments with magical powers. A reconciliation with Cascade causes Ferdinand to miss a ship bound for Argentina and, in a final scene, he crosses London Bridge on the way to new adventures. Céline's wartime trilogy—Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon—recounts his desperate flight from France via Germany to Denmark at the end of the Second World War. Abandoning the pretense of a fictional protagonist, Céline writes openly as himself in these works, though takes great liberties in the presentation of time, place, and nonfactual episodes as he dramatizes events between June 1944 and the spring of 1945. In Castle to Castle Céline describes the middle stage of his journey, during which he lived and worked as a doctor in the French colony of Sigmaringen while seeking entry into Germany. After a long prologue in which he rails against the false accusations and hardships imposed upon him, the novel centers upon activities in and around the resort town which attracted many refugees of the notorious Vichy government. North revolves around Céline's stay in Baden-Baden and war-ravaged Berlin, where he witnessed the disintegration and chaos of the collapsing Third Reich, and Rigadoon traces his travels through northern Germany and finally to short-lived freedom at his destination in Denmark. Céline's additional novels, Féerie pour une autre fois and its sequel Normance, are transitional works that deal primarily with his imprisonment in Copenhagen and experiences prior to his arrival in Denmark. In Entretiens avec le professeur Y (1955; Conversations with Professor Y) Céline delineates his literary principles and techniques, which he compares to the work of Impressionist painters, through a mock interview with a hostile and inept questioner.
Considered among the first rank of twentieth-century French novelists, Céline is highly regarded as a radical literary innovator whose manic prose, savage humor, and accusatory pessimism inspired a generation of writers and introduced new possibilities for the novel form. As David O'Connell reports, "In the last twenty years, Louis-Ferdinand Céline has emerged and, in the opinion of most major critics, joined Proust as one of the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century." Céline's wide-reaching influence is evident in the work of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and numerous major American authors, including Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Thomas Pynchon. According to O'Connell, "In the United States, the number of writers clearly influenced by Céline is greater than for any other European writer, living or dead." While Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan are widely viewed as his most important works, Céline has also attracted critical praise for his trilogy Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon. Both Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan were immediately embraced by representatives of the political left and right, however Céline's anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies caused his work to fall into silent disrepute for several decades. His reputation was partially reinstated during the 1960s as critics regained appreciation for his lyrical rage and demystification of hypocritical institutions and popular sentiments, particularly military valor, middle-class respectability, and industrial prosperity. Philip H. Solomon writes, "Céline wields his pen like a scalpel (he was, after all, a doctor by vocation). He dissects the human condition, exposing its malignancies, but he offers no treatments or cures." As Jane Carson notes, "Céline writes with a purpose: to show us that the world does not conform to the structure we conventionally give it, that we are in fact surrounded by anarchy."