Louis-Ferdinand Destouches

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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}

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...

(The entire section is 1,417 words.)