Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was the pen name of French writer and doctor Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (27 May 1894 – 1 July 1961). The name Céline was chosen after his grandmother's forename. Céline is considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, developing a new style of writing that modernized both French and World literature. He remains, however, a controversial figure due to statements published during the Second World War.


Early life

Only child of Ferdinand-Auguste Destouches and Marguerite-Louise-Céline Guilloux, he was born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in 1894 at Courbevoie, just outside Paris in the Seine département (now Hauts-de-Seine). His father was a minor functionary in an insurance firm and his mother was a lacemaker. In 1905 he was awarded his Certificat d'études, after which he began working as an apprentice and messenger boy in various trades. Between 1908 and 1910 his parents sent him to Germany and England for a year in each country in order to acquire foreign languages for future employment. In 1912 he began a three year enlistment in the 12th Cavalry Regiment stationed in Rambouillet. In October 1914 he was wounded in action near Ypres, and was awarded the médaille militaire in November, and appeared on the cover of the weekly l'Illustré National in December. The head injury left him with recurrent tinnitus. In 1915 his arm wounds were such that he was declared physically unfit for any more active duty. He was sent to London to work in the passport office there. While in London, he was quietly married with Suzanne Nebout and divorced one year later. In 1916 he began a sojourn in the Cameroons with a French lumber company and returned in 1917. For the next three years he worked for the Rockefeller Foundation in Brittany, dispensing information on tuberculosis, while continuing his secondary studies on his own in Rennes. In 1919 he completed his baccalauréat and married Édith Follet, daughter of the director of the medical school in Rennes. In 1920 his daughter Colette was born. In 1924 he received his medical degree in which he wrote a doctoral thesis on Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. In 1925 he left his family for good and under the aegis of the League of Nations he travelled to Switzerland, England, the Cameroons, Canada, the United States, and Cuba. In 1928 he set up a private practice in Montmartre, in the north end of Paris, specializing in obstetrics. In 1931 he gave up private practice to work in a public dispensary. In 1932 he completed Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) and was almost awarded the Goncourt Prize.

Literary life and awards

His best-known work is Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), translated into English most recently by Ralph Manheim. It broke many literary conventions of the time, using the rhythms and, to a certain extent, the vocabulary of slang and vulgar speech in a more consistent (and occasionally difficult) way than earlier writers who had made similar attempts (notably Zola), in the tradition of François Villon. The book became a public success, but Céline was not awarded the Prix Goncourt, despite strong support; the voting was controversial enough to become the subject of a book (Goncourt 32 by Eugène Saccomano, 1999).

In 1936 he published Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan), giving innovative, chaotic, and antiheroic visions of human suffering. Here, he extensively uses ellipses scattered all throughout the text to enhance the rhythm and to emphasise the style of speech.

In both these books he not only showed himself to be a great innovator of style but also a masterly story teller. He was widely admired at that time by young upcoming writers such as Sartre and was the most discussed author of his time.


Céline was accused of antisemitism during the Nazi period and subsequently lived in exile for a number of years. While he did not collaborate with the Nazis in any fashion, the climate of blame in the aftermath of World War II led to his imprisonment in Denmark for eighteen months from 1945-1947 with the Danes even refusing an extradition request from France citing insufficient proof that he actively collaborated with the Nazis. During the rise of Nazi Germany, he wrote three typically cynical and misanthropic pamphlets interpreted to be antisemitic: Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre) (1937), L'École des cadavres (School of Corpses) (1938) and Les Beaux draps (The Fine Mess) (1941), the last one published during the occupation of France. These led to the widespread blame and hatred encountered and even predicted by Celine in the postwar years.

The massacre that Céline had in mind when he entitled his first overtly antisemitic pamphlet Bagatelles pour un massacre was that of the "goïms," or Gentiles, who he thought would be led in slaughter once again in another great war. Céline had been mobilized during the First World War where he received a serious arm injury in the course of a mission for which he had volunteered. In later years he was to claim that he had undergone trepanation at the hands of army surgeons in 1915. This claim, which the fictional character Robinson claims to have undergone this procedure in Journey to the End of the Night, was a false one invented for reasons that grew out of Céline's desire to picture himself as an unjustly persecuted loner. Records from the Paul Brousse Hospital in Villejuif on the outskirts of Paris notes that only his arm was operated on.

Although Céline's political ideals here appeared to have have much in common with the Nazis, he was publicly critical of Adolf Hitler, whom he called a "Jew", and of "Aryan baloney". His fascist views are evident in L'Ecole des cadavres where he calls for a Franco-German alliance in order to counter the alliance between British intelligence and "the international Jewish conspiracy Céline was a friend of the German-French sculptor Arno Breker. He visited Breker last time in Germany in 1943 at Brekers Castle Jaeckelsbruch near Berlin. After the Vichy regime fell in 1944, Céline escaped judgment by fleeing to Sigmaringen, Germany, accompanying the Vichy Chief of State, Henri Phillipe Pétain, and President, Pierre Laval. For a brief time Céline acted as Laval's personal physician. A fictional account of this period can be found in Céline’s novel "D'un château l'autre" (Castle to Castle), published in 1960.

After the fall of the Nazi government Céline subsequently fled to Denmark (1945). Branded a collaborator, he was convicted in absentia (1950) in France to one year of imprisonment and declared a national disgrace. He was subsequently granted amnesty and returned to France in 1951.

Later life and death

Céline regained fame in later life with a trilogy telling of his exile: D'un château l'autre, (describing the fall of Schloss Sigmaringen), Nord and Rigodon. He settled down in Meudon, where he was visited by several friends and artists, among them the famous actress Arletty. He became something of an icon for the Beat Movement. Both William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg visited him in his Parisian apartment in the 1950's. Céline died on 1 July 1961 of a ruptured aneurysm and was interred in a small cemetery at Bas Meudon (part of Meudon in the Hauts-de-Seine département).

Work and legacy

Journey to the End of the Night is among the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century. Céline's legacy survives in the tragic bitterness of Samuel Beckett, in the imitation of him by Jean-Paul Sartre, Queneau, and Jean Genet among others, and in the admiration expressed for him by people like Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Robbe-Grillet, and Barthes. In the United States, writers like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., William S. Burroughs, and Ken Kesey owe an obvious debt to the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit, though the relatively late date of the first English language translation means that any direct influence can be difficult to demonstrate. Few first novels have had the impact of Journey to the End of the Night. Written in an explosive and highly colloquial style, the book shocked most critics but found immediate success with the French reading public, which responded enthusiastically to the violent misadventures of its petit-bourgeois antihero, Bardamu, and his characteristic nihilism. The author's military experiences in WWI, his travels to colonial French West Africa, New York, and his return to postwar France all provide episodes within the sprawling narrative.

Pessimism pervades Céline's fiction as his characters sense failure, anxiety, nihilism, and inertia. The narrative of betrayal and exploitation, both real and imagined, corresponds with his personal life. His two true loves, his wife and his cat, are mentioned with nothing other than kindness and warmth. A progressive disintegration of personality appears in the stylistic incoherence of his books based on his life during the war: Guignol's Band, D'un château l'autre and Nord. However, some critics claim that the books are less incoherent than intentionally fragmented, and that they represent the final development of the style introduced with Journey to the End of the Night, suggesting that Céline maintained his faculties in clear working order to the end of his days. Guignol's Band and its companion novel London Bridge center on the London underworld during WWI. Celine's autobiographical narrator recounts his disastrous partnership with a mystical Frenchman (intent on financing a trip to Tibet by winning a gas-mask competition); his uneasy relationship with London's pimps and prostitutes and their common nemesis, Inspector Matthew of Scotland Yard. These novels are classic examples of his black comedy which few writers have equaled.. He continued writing right up to his death in 1961, finishing his last novel, Rigodon, in fact on the day before he died. In Conversations with Professor Y (1955) Céline defends his style, indicating that his heavy use of the ellipsis and his disjointed sentences are an attempt to embody human emotion in written language.

His writings are examples of black comedy, where unfortunate and often terrible things are described humorously. Céline's writing is often hyper-real and its polemic qualities can often be startling; however, his main strength lies in his ability to discredit almost everything and yet not lose a sense of enraged humanity. Céline was also an influence on Irvine Welsh, Günter Grass and Charles Bukowski. Bukowski has famously said that "Journey to the End of the Night was the best book written in the last two thousand years."

As the years go by and the future unfolds, attitudes might change regarding Céline's role on the French political scene beginning in 1937. But the existence of the pamphlets will probably forever be a stumbling block to admirers of his novels. If he had not written them, he might well be ranked today as second to none among modern French novelists.



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