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Céline, Literary Antichrist

If we demand that our artists be angels, we will not have any art left to appreciate.

· 9 min read
Céline, Literary Antichrist
Louis-Ferdinand Céline 1932, Wikimedia Commons

June 17th, 1944. A 50-year-old medical doctor is scrambling down five flights of stairs to the ground floor of his building on the rue Girardon in Montmartre, a bohemian quartier of Paris. His wife is beside him. Gold is secreted in the lining of his coat. Fake documents are stuffed in his pocket. A cat is clutched under his arm. The allies—whom our doctor fought alongside during the First World War—have just landed in Normandy.

Our doctor is a Nazi collaborator, and he is on his way to Germany at a time when most—except for the soldiers who plan to lay it to waste—are desperate to get out. Our doctor’s name is Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, better known as Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He is not just a doctor, a soldier, and a turncoat. He is also the man Charles Bukowski would later call “the greatest writer of 2000 years.”

Céline subsequently claimed to have left a treasure trove of manuscripts in Montmartre, which he believed ended up in “the trash cans of the avenue Junot,” adjacent to the rue Girardon. The papers were never seen again, and many dismissed the author’s claims about their existence as more fruit of a fecund imagination.

Céline held Oscar Rosembly—a “Corsican Jew”—responsible for their disappearance. Rosembly was Céline’s bookkeeper, and was later convicted of looting the homes of former collaborators. Wherever the manuscripts ended up, in the late 1980s, their custodian handed them to journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, on two conditions: that he or she remain anonymous, and that the manuscripts remain unpublished until Lucette, Céline’s wife, passed away, so she could not profit from them.

This deprived the French public of an important body of work for an improbably long time. Céline died in 1961 at the age of 67. Lucette died in 2019 at the age of 107. By this time, the texts had assumed the status of mythical scrolls or religious artefacts. No one was sure they existed, and if they did, what they might contain.

With the recent publication of Guerre (War) by Gallimard—Céline’s publishing house during his lifetime and France’s most prestigious—we have the answer. And the texts are every bit as consequential as Céline suggested. We are in the unusual situation of seeing previously unpublished works, written by a literary giant nearly a century ago, appear on bookshelves; the missing pieces of one of literature’s most vexing puzzles.

Céline was an only child born in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, in 1894. His mother owned a lingerie store beneath the family apartment, while his father was a clerk in an insurance company. The lingerie store failed in 1897, and by 1899 the family was living in the second arrondissement of Paris, then undergoing rapid re-development.

The Destouches lived a classic petit-bourgeois existence in the Passage Choiseul, a shopping gallery which survives to this day. The common view, which Céline himself cultivated, is that he grew up in the hardscrabble banlieues of Paris. In reality, he grew up at the city’s commercial heart, a stone’s throw from the stock exchange and the Palais-Royal.

This is not to say his youth was easy. Report cards describe the young Louis as an intelligent but lazy child. Unusually, one school report criticised his parents’ “weakness” as an impediment to their child’s development. He was regularly pulled out of one school and placed in another, only to be put back into the previous one for no apparent reason.

Louis’s mother, Marguerite Guillou, was a cold and aloof figure. It was his maternal grandmother, Céline Guillou, who taught Louis to read, and whose name Louis later adopted to mask his identity. Louis’s father, Fernand, was a complicated figure too. Louis was born the year Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested on charges of high treason, setting in train an affair which would divide the French nation and expose the extent of its antisemitism. Fernand was a virulent antidreyfusard, the side which believed Dreyfus was guilty and justly convicted of treason.

Unsurprisingly, given his unstable youth in Paris, Louis was sent abroad at the age of 14. He spent a year in England and Germany acquiring the languages that would be of great use to him during his travels and the occupation of France. These experiences also enabled him to read German philosophy and English literature, most notably Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad, whose works he would draw upon over the course of his writing career.

Louis joined the army in 1912 (apparently to spite his parents) but found military life disagreeable. He resorted to writing as a form of escape. His regiment saw action with the outbreak of the Great War, but Louis was wounded in his right arm while delivering a message and forced to recover for many months. These events inspired Guerre. Sergeant Destouches was awarded a medal for bravery and discharged, having been declared 70 percent disabled.

In 1915, with his military service brought to a premature end, Louis went to London where he worked as a clerk in the French embassy. This period inspired the book Londres (London), also found among the Montmartre papers, which will be published by Gallimard in France this Autumn. Louis then travelled to French-controlled territory in Africa where he worked as a supervisor in a forestry company and set up a pharmacy.

At the end of the war, Louis retuned to France. He spent the early 1920s training to be a doctor, the mid-1920s travelling the world with the League of Nations’ health department, and the latter part of the decade practising medicine in the down-at-heel suburb of Clichy, where Henry Miller—an admirer of Céline—took up residence in 1930 and which he immortalised in his novella, Quiet Days in Clichy.

In 1932, Céline’s first novel and chef d’oeuvre, Journey to the End of the Night, was published. The book created a stir, and when it was overlooked for the 1932 Goncourt Prize, Céline, as he would henceforth be known, was propelled to literary fame. He nevertheless continued to work at the clinic in Clichy until shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

After the war, Céline sought exile in Denmark. He returned to France in 1951 and took up residence in the Paris suburb of Meudon. In his run-down but relatively large house, Céline accepted patients while his wife, Lucette, taught dance classes upstairs. He died a broken man—having expressed his readiness for the end in many interviews—in 1961.

Céline’s work is said to resemble that of James Joyce for its modernist, stream-of-consciousness style; Miller for its vulgarity; Hemingway for its terseness, which is even more jarring in French where the sentences are typically longer than in English. The similarities between Céline and Hemingway do not end there. Both men were wounded on the front, Hemingway in Italy a few weeks before his 19th birthday, Céline in France at the age of 20. Both were world travellers and found inspiration in the streets of Paris. Both were modernist prose stylists who cast long shadows over the languages in which they wrote. They even died within hours of each other.

But where Hemingway’s style is stern and exacting, Céline’s is light and musical—visceral and breathless—echoing the rhythm of the streets. It was Hemingway who brought the doctor’s precision to prose, while Céline brought pure spontaneity. Pure unfiltered experience. Who could forget Barmadu—Céline’s alter-ego—marvelling at the Manhattan skyline upon his ship’s arrival in New York harbour:

Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we'd seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there as stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifyingly stiff.

Céline’s books read like extended postcards from your brashest and most interesting friend. Indeed, perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was destroying the previously strict barrier between his native language’s written and oral form, scandalising the French literary establishment.

Henri de Régnier, a monocled poet and member of the priestly immortels of the Academie Française, called Journey “devoid of spirit and lyricism” and a “tedious, repugnant and gloomy confession.” It is intriguing to note the similarities between these comments and the reviews of today.

Writing in the New Republic in response to the publication of Guerre, Scott Bradfield (whose own titles include Good Girl Wants It Bad and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog), says Céline’s books are “too long, meandering and repetitive.” To criticise Céline on stylistic grounds is a brave argument indeed. The far more fashionable line of attack is that Céline’s views were too reprehensible for his art to be appreciated.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says Céline’s antisemitism cannot be separated from his work, because “writing doesn’t work that way … rawness, an overcharge of emotion and appetite, is exactly what makes Céline’s work so characteristic. The anti-Semitic fulmination is all of a piece.” Gopnik also suggests: “The line between Céline’s pamphlets and Auschwitz is direct; to pretend that it’s not is to sin against history.” I am not quite sure what “to sin against history” means, but it sounds bad. It is curious, then, that by the end of his piece, Gopnik suggests that Céline remains someone whom it is possible to admire.

It is difficult to take those who advance the argument that art and artist cannot be separated seriously, for the simple reason that if we demand that our artists be angels we will not have any art left to appreciate. But we must take these arguments seriously, due to the increasing popularity they enjoy.

Consider the following claim in an article by Ruth Millington, an art historian: “By separating artist from artwork, we ignore Picasso's misogyny towards those models who are pictured in his paintings. This reductive narrative also removes the agency of his muses who were key collaborators in the creation of numerous masterpieces.” Millington makes similar remarks about Caravaggio and renaissance sculptor Bernini.

If Céline was a once-in-a-generation literary talent, a healer of the poor, and an antisemite, his legacy must be sullied and jettisoned in its entirety. If Edward Colston built schools, hospitals, lodgings for the poor, and was also a shareholder in a slave-trading company (at a time when the practice was common), his likeness must likewise be extirpated.

At some point we began to internalise the Christian injunction that we defend victims, but we continue to eschew all the others, especially forgiveness. Where previously we viewed everyone as fallen, today whether one is a sinner depends on their political views and unalterable characteristics. Transgression of this new religion’s cardinal sins demands “accountability,” which is merely a euphemism for revenge.

Our society has forgotten the great insight of Dostoevsky—that we all have the capacity for evil. Nowhere is this more evident than in literature, which has become a grievance industry of the most cynical and commercialised kind. Evil does not, as Solzhenitsyn observed, cut across the hearts of all men. According to contemporary cultural elites, it resides in the hearts and consciences of one disfavoured group or another. Where Céline’s work says: Isn’t life absurd? today’s writers say: Isn’t life unfair?

If critics had any interest in understanding men’s capacity for evil, they would read Guerre closely. Céline writes in the opening pages: “I caught the war inside my head. It’s trapped inside my head … I learned to tell the difference between the noises from the outside and the noises that will never leave me.” We are left with the impression that, if a man was lucky enough to walk away from the front, he would never be the same again.

Journey shows where one goes after the horror of war: into the night, on a vain and unending quest for meaning. Guerre shows us what pushes him into the abyss. Nietzsche, who described himself as the anti-Christ, warned us God was dead, leaving us capable of anything. Céline is Nietzsche’s literary equivalent, exposing the fate of a man with nothing left to believe in.

In an era of moral absolutism, is there any room left for the humour which characterised the artists of previous generations? Stanley Kubrick described Céline as “his favourite anti-Semite.” Allen Ginsberg visited Céline in Meudon with William S. Burroughs shortly before Céline’s death, and the two Americans later laughed that their old hero failed to realise that Ginsberg was Jewish. Antisemitism is no laughing matter. But the hysteria and religious undertones with which certain thoughts (rather than actions) are met today are causes for concern too.

Asked by a journalist for his final words in 1957, Céline used the same word over and over to describe his detractors. That word was lourd—heavy. I have often pondered what Céline meant by this. Perhaps he was referring to the zeal with which his critics approached their craft compared to the levity that characterised his. Where Dostoevsky turned the mirror on himself and all humanity by extension, Céline shed the burden of literary seriousness.

In 1949, Céline predicted he would “end up being the century’s most cursed author.” As luck would have it, he is perhaps the most cursed of ours too. Céline witnessed events which may one day be viewed as the death-blows of a civilization, like the civil wars which plagued Rome during its penultimate century. Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a deeply flawed man, and the product of heady and traumatic times. Perhaps those who seek to condemn him with such religious fervour will one day be exposed as the product of our own.

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