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."
La Vie et l'oeuvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis [The Life and Work of Semmelweis] (dissertation) 1924
Voyage au bout de la nuit [Journey to the End of the Night] (novel) 1932
L'Eglise, comédie en 5 actes (drama) 1933
Mea Culpa, suivi de La Vie et l'oeuvre de Semmelweis [Mea Culpa and The Life and Work of Semmelweis] (pamphlet and dissertation) 1936
Mort à crédit [Death on the Installment Plan] (novel) 1936
Bagatelles pour un massacre (pamphlet and ballet) 1937
L'Ecole des cadavres (pamphlet) 1938
Les Beaux Draps (pamphlet) 1941
Guignol's Band (novel) 1944
Casse-pipe (prose sketches)...
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Kingsley Widmer (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "The Way Down to Wisdom of Louis-Ferdinand Céline," in Minnesota Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1968, pp. 85-91.
[In the following essay, Widmer offers analysis of Céline's misanthropy and pessimism in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. According to Widmer, "Those who see nothing but humor and rancor in Céline miss the existential wisdom."]
Céline's writings have a special relevance to contemporary American literature. While that should not be, given the usual adumbrations of our culture as arising from optimistic innocence and pragmatism and affluence, we may now be more willing to revise the bright theories than...
(The entire section is 3944 words.)
Paul A. Fortier (essay date Spring 1971)
SOURCE: "Marxist Criticism of Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Spring, 1971, pp. 268-72.
[In the following essay, Fortier examines Marxist themes, interpretation, and critical reaction to Journey to the End of the Night.]
Voyage au bout de la nuit, from its publication in 1932, created around itself an atmosphere of mystery and controversy. The author, who called himself Céline, was unknown. The grammar used in this text resembles that of factory workers, taxi drivers, and hoodlums—an idiom hardly considered to be a fit vehicle for art. The vocabulary is a curious mixture of neologisms, medical terms,...
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Colin W. Nettelbeck (essay date January 1972)
SOURCE: "Journey to the End of Art: The Evolution of the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline," in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 80-9.
[In the following essay, Nettelbeck examines the evolution of ethical and aesthetic concerns in Céline's oeuvre. "Despite his reputation as a hate-filled iconoclast," writes Nettelbeck, "the central thrust of Céline's literary works … is, on the contrary, toward affirmation."]
During the last fifteen years of his life, Céline reflected a great deal about his art. In his correspondence (particularly the 1947 letters to Milton Hindus), in the several interviews which...
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Jane Carson (essay date Summer 1981)
SOURCE: "Céline: The Fire in the Night," in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 117-30.
[In the following essay, Carson examines picaresque themes and the metaphorical significance of fire in Céline's fiction. "In Céline's novels," Carson writes, "the images of fire reveal many of the author's ideas about creativity and the act of writing."]
The narrators of Céline's novels, from Bardamu in Voyage au bout de la nuit to the doctor of Rigodon, share a desire to recount a journey which, as they are the first to point out, leads to no magic solution, no shining Grail. From the opening of the...
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William K. Buckley (essay date Spring 1986)
SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Novels: From Narcissism to Sexual Connection," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Buckley examines Céline's treatment of sexual desire and love in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan.]
"Ah, Ferdinand … as long as you live you will always search for the secret of the universe in the loins of women!"
… the female mystery doesn't reside between the thighs, it's on another wave-length, a much more subtle one.
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Wayne Burns (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "'I'll Protest If It Kills Me': A Reading of the Prologue to Death on the Installment Plan," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 180-92.
[In the following essay, Burns discusses incongruities between the narrator of Journey to the End of the Night and the narrator of the prologue to Death on the Installment Plan. According to Burns, the later work "is a distinct and separate novel that makes its own demands in order to express its own intentions."]
The novel of adventures, the tale, the epic are [an] ingenuous manner of experiencing imaginary and significant...
(The entire section is 5973 words.)
David O'Connell (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: An Introduction," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 100-10.
[In the following essay, O'Connell provides an overview of Céline's literary career, novels, and critical reception.]
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. This change in his literary fortunes is one of the most interesting stories in modern literature, and is understandable if one remembers that Céline's work was surrounded by what amounts to a conspiracy of silence by...
(The entire section is 5557 words.)
Erika Ostrovsky (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Creator and Destroyer of Myths," in Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, edited by William K. Buckley, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 92-100.
[In the following essay, Ostrovsky examines Céline's adaptation and subversion of myth themes and patterns in his novels.]
Céline has elicited so much critical commentary—especially in the past decade—the corpus of interpretations devoted to him is so rich and varied, that one might well ask what still remains to be said. Yet his work, by its extraordinary complexity and vitality, constantly inspires, even demands, new explorations. Among these, the treatment of myth elements in his fictions...
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Philip H. Solomon (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Reading Céline," in Understanding Céline, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 5-15.
[In the following essay, Solomon provides an overview of the major themes and characters in Céline's novels.]
Céline preferred to think of himself as a stylist, but it would be more appropriate to consider his writings in terms of a particular vision of the human condition. Vision is a crucial concept in Céline's novels. Several of his novels begin with a unique pattern of opening signals. The narrator finds himself in a set of circumstances articulated by a mythologized head wound which results in his having perceptual distortions. These distortions...
(The entire section is 3468 words.)
Sally M. Silk (essay date September 1992)
SOURCE: "Caught in the Dialogic: The Célinian Narrator Silenced," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 107, No. 4, September, 1992, pp. 795-805.
[In the following essay, Silk discusses the effect of cultural alienation on the protagonist's ability to communicate in Journey to the End of the Night.]
Dialogism's emphasis on an interplay of voices is grounded in Bakhtin's conception of the word as social material. Because "all words have the 'taste' of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour," the notion of a word of one's own becomes...
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Andrea Loselle (essay date Spring 1993)
SOURCE: "Fading Images: The Touristic Itinerary and Spatial Representation in Céline's German Trilogy," in Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 16-35.
[In the following essay, Loselle examines the narrative presentation of time and space in Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon, and Céline's role as a chronicler of historical reality and postwar tourist.]
Imagine, Amalia, you're sitting in a room screening a film and the projector jams. Right in the middle of a cross fade between scenes. You see double. The frozen images of the scene just past, and the not-quite formed...
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Yves Pagès (essay date Spring 1994)
SOURCE: "Céline and Anarchist Culture," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 321-31.
[In the following essay, Pagès examines right-wing extremism and libertarian discourse in Céline's writing. According to Pagès, "the momentum of anarchic subversion that surfaces in Céline's fiction almost imperceptibly valorizes certain ethical or existential perspectives that are by nature antiauthoritarian."]
It is important to remember one's first impressions of a book. When I first read Voyage au bout de la nuit at the age of sixteen, I felt as though I were entering into an uncensored language, one that bypasses the usual split between the...
(The entire section is 3524 words.)
Rosemarie Scullion (essay date Spring 1994)
SOURCE: "Céline in Cross-Cultural Perspective," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 513-22.
[In the following essay, Scullion discusses Céline's depiction of American capitalist society, his literary influence on American writers, and his often problematic critical interpretation.]
Reminiscing on his world travels in postwar conversations with Robert Poulet, Louis Ferdinand Céline derided the boundless "commercial optimism" he found animating life in the United States during his visits in the 1920s and 1930s: Americans "tend not to revel in the morose…. When they realize they're no longer perky, they check their pulse and temperature."...
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Sally Silk (essay date May 1996)
SOURCE: "Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit: The Nation Constructed Through Storytelling," in Romanic Review, Vol. 87, No. 3, May, 1996, pp. 391-403.
[In the following essay, Silk examines the fictional invention of national identity in Journey to the End of the Night. According to Silk, "it is in Bardamu's relationship to the bourgeois patriotism of wartime France that one can locate a link to Céline's later embrace of fascism."]
Céline's oeuvre, like those of numerous other twentieth-century writers, is strongly marked by the problematic status of the writer's fiction vis-à-vis his politics. For some critics, Céline's anti-semitism and his avowed...
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Buckley, William K. "Céline: The Rumble Under Our Floorboards." Studies in the Novel 21, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 432-9.
Provides an overview of contemporary critical response to Céline's fiction, noting the persistence of reactionary and outdated interpretations of his work.
Clemmen, Yves W. A. "Travel, Fiction, and the Cross-Cultural: Céline and Tournier Experiencing the Other." CLA Journal XXXVIII, No. 1 (September 1994): 46-58.
A comparative study of travel themes and transcultural encounters in Journey to the End of the Night and Michel Tournier's...
(The entire section is 588 words.)