In addition to his novels, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (say-LEEN) published his dissertation for his medical degree, the biographical work La Vie et l’uvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweis (1936), and a denunciation of life in the Soviet Union under Communism titled Mea culpa (1936); the last two of these appeared in English in 1937 in a volume titled “Mea Culpa,” with “The Life and Work of Semmelweis.” He also wrote a play, L’Église (pb. 1933; The Church, 2003); three anti-Semitic pamphlets, Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937; trifles for a massacre), L’École des cadavres (1938; school for corpses), and Les Beaux Draps (1941; a fine mess); and several ballets, which were collected in Ballets, sans musique, sans personne, sans rien (1959; Ballets Without Music, Without Dancers, Without Anything, 1999). Céline’s diatribe against Jean-Paul Sartre, who had accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis for money, was published as À l’agité du bocal (1949; to the restless one in the jar). Céline claimed to have lost several manuscripts when his apartment was pillaged during the Occupation. A surviving fragment of a novel was published as Casse-pipe.
Hailed by many as one of the foremost French writers of the twentieth century, condemned by others for the repulsive depiction of humanity in his fictional works and for the vileness of his anti-Semitic pamphlets, Louis-Ferdinand Céline remains a controversial figure in French letters. One can place him in the French tradition of the poètes maudits (cursed poets), a lineage that begins with the medieval poet François Villon and includes such figures as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jean Genet. Like them, Céline sought to subvert traditional writing and thereby shock the conventional reader into a new sensibility. His works, like theirs, are colored by a personal life that is equally scandalous.
Céline’s novels have contributed to modern literature a singularly somber existentialist view of human society. Unlike some characters in Sartre’s novels, Céline’s Ferdinand (all hisprotagonists are variations of the same character) is unable to transcend the disorder, pain, despair, and ugliness of life through heroic action or political commitment. A doctor as well as a writer, Céline was acutely aware of the biology of human destiny—that decay, disease, and death ultimately erase all forms of distinction and that, in a world without God, there is nothing beyond the grave.
In the course of his apprenticeship to life—his journey to the end of the night—Céline’s protagonist experiences the shattering of the...
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Bouchard, Norma. Céline, Gadda, Beckett: Experimental Writings of the 1930’s. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Bouchard maintains that works by Céline, Carlo Emilio Gadda, and Samuel Beckett have stylistic characteristics that would later be associated with postmodernism, such as a changed relationship to language, a burlesque worldview, and a decentered narrative.
Hewitt, Nicholas. The Life of Céline: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Hewitt’s critical biography provides analysis of Céline’s life and work and places both within the context of French cultural, social, and political history. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Matthews, J. H. The Inner Dream: Céline as Novelist. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1978. Matthews explores all of Céline’s major fiction. The introduction has an insightful discussion of how to treat the work of a writer whose politics and life have been so controversial.
Noble, Ian. Language and Narration in Céline’s Writings. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1987. The first chapter, which sets Céline in the context of literary history, is especially good. Noble deals with both the fiction and nonfiction. Includes detailed notes and a bibliography.
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