Louis-Ferdinand Céline, one of my favorite writers, died fifty years ago today. His painfully lucid insights into the human condition make for a reading experience that is exhilarating and truly terrifying. I first read Journey to the End of the Night when I was nineteen. By the time I finished the book I was shaken and stunned – it seemed as if all of my worst fears about existence had just been validated.
Céline was, to put it mildly, a divided character. He was smart enough to become a physician, kind enough to serve in clinics for the poor people of Paris – and was a virulent and outspoken anti-semite. If you accept the analysis of his excellent biographer Patrick McCarthy – I do – Céline was so overcome by his catastrophic view of existence, and so appalled by the prospect of a second European war (he’d been wounded in the head in WWI), that he sought out a scapegoat – the Jew – to serve as an escape hatch for his pessimism. If only the “Jewish problem” were solved, he (falsely) reasoned, there might be hope.
This pseudo-reasoning is appalling and indefensible. It is also in wide use today, with Muslims and Christians, “infidels” and “liberals,” “foreigners,” “illegal aliens,” and additional “others” joining the Jews as dehumanized targets to be blamed for the world’s ills.
Céline is one of the loneliest figures in twentieth-century literature. At his death in 1961 the French newspapers gave him less space than Ernest Hemingway who died the same day. His funeral had none of the pomp of Valéry’s or Mauriac’s. Post-war critics had virtually excluded him from French literature. Yet he is a great artist. Sartre once thought so and so did Henry Miller. Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) was a revolution in novel-writing. In Mort à credit (1936) Céline created a new language to express his nightmarish vision.
He was neglected because of his political opinions. He wrote anti-semitic pamphlets, sided with Hitler and fled to Germany in 1944. He belonged to an era that Frenchmen preferred to forget. Camus, Sartre and the writers of the Resistance dominated the post-war period. A curtain of silence was drawn over their opponents. Voyage and Mort were admired but ignored. Céline’s later books were greeted with slight enthusiasm. The pamphleteer had brought the novelist into disrepute. Céline had been paid – so Sartre said – by the Nazis.
The truth is harder and stranger. Céline was a creature of violent contradictions. A First World War hero, he went on to write Voyage, the most pacifist of novels. A life-long hater of the Germans, he threw himself into their arms at the moment of their defeat. Trotsky praised his writings, but so did the Nazi review Stürmer. Céline was a Celt from Brittany with the Celtic love of language and talk. He was also the epitome of lower-middle-class France: modest, cautious with money, a very private person. He lived a turbulent life caught up with the great events of his age. He fought in two world wars, worked as a doctor for the League of Nations, visited Russia in the 1930s, took a stand on fascism. Along with this he pursued his personal quest for beauty: falling in love with dancers, trying to introduce their art into his novels.
Here lies the problem. Among so many Célines, which is the real one? One must separate the man, the pamphleteer and the novelist. In his life Céline was anti-semitic but he was not as obsessed as in Bagatelles pour un massacre. He immersed himself in his novel-writing, but he was not as demented as the narrator of Mort. The ‘I’ of the pamphlets is not the same as the ‘I’ of the novels. One must look closely at Céline’s life and work and undertake the prosaic task of sifting the evidence. Céline did not want us to do this. When biographers asked him for details of his past he grew angry: ‘Invent them,’ he snapped. One must deliberately go against him.
In discussing Céline’s life one encounters two kinds of problems. The first is obtaining information. Céline was almost forty when he published Voyage and his earlier life is badly documented. It is very hard to find out anything about his childhood and adolescence. The second problem is to distinguish between fact and invention. Céline gives a distorted view of his life in his fiction. He blackens himself. He did travel to Africa, as Bardamu does in Voyage, and he did spend months in Sigmaringen, as Ferdinand does in D’un château l’autre. But he also went through years of stability, which his narrators do not. He did not always fail, as they do. When the ageing Céline talked to journalists about his life he portrayed himself as an innocent victim. He would not admit he was anti-semitic or that he had collaborated. He cried to high heaven that he was a blameless scapegoat thrust into the desert by a million enemies: Resistants, Communists and Allies. At other times, switching his role, he would lead people to believe that he was indeed a monster. He praised Hitler and condemned post-war France.
The facts are more complex than any of these inventions. Céline was Jekyll and Hyde: successful author and hunted refugee, kindly doctor and anti-semite. He was a passionate, tough man. It is tragic that he convinced so many people with his legends because the truth is so much more interesting.
The pamphlets are an embarrassment to Céline’s supporters. The editor of the Oeuvres completes refused to include them. But they cannot be ignored. Appeasement is an integral part of Céline’s thought, anti-semitism is another: it is an escape-hatch from his pessimism. Céline needed to become a pamphleteer. He had to distort the reality of the 1930s into a hallucination where he could hate and be hated. In the pamphlets he could explain to himself the evils of Communism and war. The explanations he offers are appalling and they contradict the values of his fiction. He has cut himself off from his readers and fallen into a solipsism that Voyage condemns. But the pamphlets must stand as Célinian works.
They are less important, however, than the novels. As a novelist, Céline gives free rein to his tragic vision. Evil has dominion, man is trapped, he can do nothing to alter his fate. Voyage depicts a hero who comes slowly to understand and feel the horror of his condition. But, at the end of the night, there is also beauty. Mort introduces the artist into the book and poses the problem of transforming the world by style. Céline’s first two novels have overshadowed the others. One of the aims of this book is to show that Fèerie and D’un château l’autre are no less exciting than Voyage. If Céline had written only his later novels he would stand as a great artist. He goes through a clear evolution. Each of his novels goes a little further than the previous one, each presents a new map of hell. Guignol’s Band (1944) is a world of black magic. Fèerie pour une autre fois (1954) shows that the black magician is the artist himself, his creative power closely linked with destructive forces. In the final trilogy (1956-61) all worlds disappear into an eternal nothingness. Céline’s style, the vehicle of his hallucinating imagination, changes too. He does not stop at the innovations of Mort: the tide of argot. In Guignol’s Band he plays with language: he creates long images, builds fantasies. In Fèerie he goes much further: neologisms abound as he mixes rhetoric and poetry to convey the creativity he is describing. By contrast the trilogy is written in short, bare phrases: language dissolves as reality does.
The purpose of this book is to separate the pieces – and then to put them back again. Céline’s life and thought centres around his unrelenting pessimism: his vision of a world where the deathshead stands behind every human face. There are various reasons that explain why he should be pessimistic. The poverty of his upbringing and his experiences in the 1914 war are one kind of reason, the crisis of European culture in the 1930s is another. They are unsatisfactory explanations because the pessimism lies deeper. It is not determined by anything, it determines. It is the driving force behind Céline’s work as a doctor and behind his stylistic innovations. Each of his many selves is a mask that he adopts to deal with this tragic vision. For this reason one must accept Céline as he is. One must not whitewash him. One must not preserve a ‘good’ Céline and banish a ‘bad’ Céline. That would be easy and Céline hated easy solutions – here one may not go against him. In his life, his pamphlets and his novels he sought out the worst because only there did he find truth. He is a mythological figure of our times. He ventured into the night of modern life to bring back the hidden secrets that most men prefer to ignore. This is the real reason why he is such a lonely figure.
Céline: A Biography (1975)