Céline, the True Enfant Terrible of French Literature

The recent publication of a long-lost manuscript by Céline, the acclaimed author of Journey to the End of the Night and a notorious anti-Semitic pamphleteer and Nazi collaborator, caused a stir in France. “Céline was not an admirable person,” argues our columnist, “but he was a great artist.”
Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, a.k.a. Céline, in Paris, 1932. He rose to fame that year with the publication of Journey to the End of the Night, his first novel. © Agence Meurisse/Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Michel Houellebecq is currently France’s most notorious literary bad boy. Misogynic references seem mandatory in his fiction, and to a lesser degree slighting references to minorities, particularly Arabs. His interviews also reflect these attitudes, and his overall negative impression is only enhanced when he shows up for some public function looking like an extra in a remake of Night of the Living Dead. Yet he is a talented writer whose social perspective is often trenchant.

Still, there is a whiff of Madison Avenue in the image Houellebecq projects. Increasingly his misogyny references peripheral characters of no real importance in the novel, and the racist comments are muted to the point of inexistant. While his work and personality may remain offensive to many, his notoriousness remains comfortably within social bounds. Such is not the case with Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, a.k.a. Céline.

Céline was an unabashed racist who published vicious anti-Semitic tracts during World War II and collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation. In 1944, with the German hegemony collapsing, he fled Paris with his wife, Lucette, and their cat, Bébert, leaving behind extensive manuscripts which he subsequently reported stolen. In 2021, under murky circumstances, the manuscripts reappeared. The publication of the first of these, Guerre (War), on May 5, proved to be the literary sensation of the year.

Guerre, an unfinished novel, is a fictionalized account of Céline’s experiences in World War I. Like all his work, this novel is semi-autobiographical. In the war he was grievously wounded and awarded a medal for bravery. The novel describes the immediate aftermath of his being hit by shrapnel, his time in a field hospital that occasionally resembles an insane asylum, his adventures with a shady friend, Cascade (originally Bébert), who pimps for his wife, Angèle, and his eventual departure for London.

The writing is vintage Céline: brutally unsentimental, filled with military and Parisian slang to such an extent that a glossary at the end of the book provides a translation for French readers of the more obtuse words and expressions. There is a deliberate defiance of grammatical rules, and a deeply sardonic yet often amused view of human behavior. Céline’s medal probably saved his life in post-World War II France. After six years of exile in Denmark, he was amnestied and returned to France where he worked as a medical doctor and novelist, railing all the time against real and imagined slights. He died in 1961.

Céline wearing the Médaille Militaire (left) and the Croix de Guerre, 1915. © Collection François Gibault

Céline is not the only writer whose personal views can affect one’s judgement of his art. Yet while figures such as Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun immediately come to mind, no artist has been so rabid and vociferous in his racism. No other French author displays such tension between the convictions of the man and the achievement of the artist. Hence, reading Céline provides a variety of difficulties.

Some people, be they French or American, simply cannot get beyond his image as a racist collaborator. This is disheartening since it reflects the persistent bromide that a great artist must be an admirable person. Céline was not an admirable person, but he was a great artist. A more practical handicap is that most of his novels are dense and lengthy. In addition, there is his elliptical style which can at times confuse readers, coupled with his use of slang which for many can make immediate comprehension problematic. When Céline is taught to American undergraduates, it is usually as part of a world literature in translation course. Graduate students are expected to read his works in French.

Given the moral and pragmatic issues surrounding his writings, why should people take the trouble to read him, or, to put the matter differently, why is Céline considered a great writer? Quite aside from the compelling style and the dark comedy, Céline had a radically insightful view into the milieu from which he emerged, working class and petite bourgeoisie France. Many authors have written about the oppression of the downtrodden, but usually with some sentimentality. Céline’s view is consistently dark. For him, when people are treated like animals, that is just what they become, self-centered, vicious, frightened, and intimidated by those who lord over them.

During his lifetime, his detractors found Céline’s vision simplistic and excessively negative, yet the postwar world, forced to confront the reality of genocide, the revelations of colonial oppression, and the new historical interest in studying previously overlooked racial and sexual minorities, women and migrants, began to discover that while the man, Céline, had many flaws, lack of insight was not among them.

The great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was once asked whether working as an artist was a pleasure. He answered that it was un dur plaisir, a difficult pleasure. Much the same can be said about reading Céline. There is admiration for his unique style, guilty pleasure at his dark humor, and unabashed amazement at his ability to look so unflinchingly at the human journey into the heart of darkness.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio probably makes the strongest case for reading Céline. The 2008 French Nobel laureate in literature wrote an essay in 1969, a few years year after Céline’s death, entitled “Comment peut-on écrire autrement ?” (How can one write otherwise?). He argues that Céline’s style is not a quirk, a literary ploy to impress readers, but a necessary form to enable him to convey his unique vision of contemporary society, a vision that any effort to understand the world we live in must consider.

The lexicological problems Céline’s prose sometimes raises are far outweighed by the brilliance of his descriptions of the modern world and its often-unruly inhabitants. Le Clézio acknowledges the difficulty Céline presents on a variety of levels but insists he must be read. His rather bizarre linguistic formulation of this need, On ne peut pas ne pas lire Céline (One cannot not read Céline), jolts by its phrasing and seemingly intolerant insistence on knowing the truth. As such, it provides a tiny foreshadowing of the experience of reading Céline.