Biography

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One of the most controversial figures of twentieth century literature, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (say-leen) was born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches. His father, Ferdinand-Auguste, worked for an insurance company; his mother, Marguerite-Louise-Céline, was a dealer in lace. Soon after his birth, the Destouches family moved to the Passage Choiseul in Paris, close to his mother’s small shop. Louis-Ferdinand attended public schools until 1904, when his parents sent him to Diepholz, Germany, in the hope that he would learn a second language and thereby improve his prospects for a business career; the following year, he attended an English boarding school.{$S[A]Destouches, Louis-Ferdinand;Céline, Louis-Ferdinand}

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After returning to France, Céline prepared his baccalauréat, passing the first part of his examination in 1912. Later that year, one of many disputes with his parents led to his three-year enlistment in a cavalry unit. His right arm and shoulder were wounded in Ypres on October 25, 1914; he won commendations for his conduct under fire. The following year, he underwent a period of convalescence in London, where he amorously pursued dancers and actresses.

From 1916 to 1917, Céline worked as an agent for a French lumber company in the Cameroons, and he spent the following three years working for the Rockefeller Foundation in Brittany, delivering lectures on the prevention of tuberculosis and completing his second baccalauréat in 1919. Soon after, he married Edith Follet, and in 1920 their daughter Colette was born.

Two years after receiving his medical degree in 1923, Céline completed work on his doctoral thesis, La Vie et l’uvre de Philippe-Ignace Semmelweiss, for which he was awarded a bronze medal from the University of Paris. This study of a doctor driven insane when the medical establishment refused to adopt his pioneering antiseptic procedures is an early example of Céline’s preoccupation with pettiness and persecution.

Although his future as a conventional medical practitioner looked extremely promising, Céline soon abandoned his family and practice at the Place de Lices and began work as a doctor for the League of Nations. From 1925 to 1927, he served in Switzerland, England, the Cameroons, and North America. Returning to Paris in 1928, he began working as a doctor by day and writing by night. Céline, who claimed that he began writing to raise money he could not earn as a doctor of the poor, began work in a public clinic in 1931.

The publication of Journey to the End of the Night in 1932, though published under his pseudonym Céline, brought immediate fame to the author. Following the exploits of the anarchist Ferdinand Bardamu, this first of Céline’s great autobiographical fantasies nearly won the coveted Goncourt Prize but instead received the less prestigious Renaudot Prize. In 1936, his second masterpiece, Death on the Installment Plan, recounted in flashback the misadventures of the incorrigible boy Ferdinand.

In the late 1930’s, Céline became a cultural pariah because of his authorship of a series of fascist and anti-Semitic pamphlets. It should, however, not be overlooked that the pseudonym “Céline” stood for a nihilistic, paranoid persona, and that throughout his literary life the fiercely misanthropic writer showered invective on every sort of human target, including supporters of the Nazi creed.

In 1939, Céline attempted to enlist in the French army but was rejected because of poor health. During most of World War II, he worked as a doctor in Paris; in 1942, he visited hospitals in Berlin. The following year, he married the ballet dancer Lucette Almanzor (fascinated by classical dance, Céline wrote ballets throughout his career). Céline and Lucette fled to Germany in 1944 and from there to Denmark in 1945. Accused by his home country of collaboration, he was imprisoned in Copenhagen from December, 1945, to February, 1947, during which time he was attacked in essays by such French writers as Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Céline was tried in absentia and found guilty by French courts in 1950, he received amnesty the following year. A minor resurgence of public interest preceded his death and secret burial in 1961.

Céline’s writings offer a sweeping, farcical, bracingly uncompromising vision of humanity at its most pathetic and unpromising. As exemplified in his two most admired works, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, Céline’s prose is notable for its unusual imagery and audacious language. His easily recognizable style, characterized by terse verbal ejaculations separated (or joined) by three dots, is widely credited with revolutionizing French literature with its wild, slang-filled vocabulary. His imagery is provocative, sometimes hallucinatory, and replete with exaggeration.

The bulk of Céline’s works has been neglected by scholars, partly because of the stigma associated with his activities during the Nazi period. His work has, however, received attention from such writers and critics as Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who have expressed their admiration for this troubling literary innovator.

Biography

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Louis-Ferdinand Céline was born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in the Parisian suburb of Courbevoie on May 27, 1894, and was reared and educated in Paris. His father worked for an insurance company; Céline’s mother owned a shop in an arcade, where she sold old lace and antiques. As a soldier during World War I, Céline was injured in the head and ear and was shot in the arm. The head and ear wounds were to leave him with a lifelong buzzing in his head and frequent bouts of insomnia; the arm wound earned for him a medal and a picture on the cover of a national magazine.

After his demobilization, Céline worked for a trading company in the Cameroons. It was during his stay in Africa that he began to write. His interest in medicine led to a job with the Rockefeller Foundation. He received his medical degree in 1918 and briefly practiced in the city of Rennes. He soon wearied of his middle-class existence, however, and, after divorcing his first wife, Edith Follet, he took a medical position with the League of Nations. He lost that post when he showed his superior, who was Jewish, a copy of his play The Church, in which there is crude satire of Jewish officials at the League of Nations. Céline wrote Journey to the End of the Night while working at a clinic, having taken as his nom de plume the surname of his maternal grandmother. The novel was greeted with enormous critical acclaim, and Céline’s literary career was launched, though he would continue to practice medicine.

In 1937, Céline published Bagatelles pour un massacre, the first of three viciously anti-Semitic pamphlets. In it, he lauds Adolf Hitler for bringing a new order to a Europe that had degenerated, according to Céline, as the result of Jewish attempts to dominate the world. During the Occupation, various letters and brief articles signed by Céline appeared in the collaborationist press.

In July, 1944, Céline fled Paris, having been denounced as a traitor by the British Broadcasting Corporation and threatened with execution by the Resistance. He sought the relative political safety of Denmark, where he had deposited money from his royalties. In the company of his second wife, Lucette Almanzor, and his cat, Bébert, he managed to make his way across war-ravaged Germany to Copenhagen. The French government instituted proceedings to extradite him so that he could be tried as a traitor. Céline was to spend some five years in Denmark, including more than one year in prison, while his case was being prepared. He maintained that his pamphlets were directed only against those Jews who were supposedly pushing France into yet another war with Germany. He also claimed that he had never written for the pro-Nazi press and that his name had been used without his consent.

On February 23, 1950, a French tribunal condemned him in absentia as a traitor to his country. Thirteen months later, he was granted amnesty as a disabled veteran of World War I. Shortly thereafter, he returned to France to resume his literary career as well as to practice medicine. On July 1, 1961, while editing his last novel, he died of a stroke.

Knowledge of Céline’s biography is crucial to a comprehension of his novels, for the events of the author’s life constitute a point of departure for his fiction. Despite the many resemblances between Céline and his protagonists, particularly in the later novels, his works are by no means thinly veiled autobiography. His art distorts, enlarges, and mythologizes the autobiographical elements in the transformational process of fiction-making.

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