Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the highly controversial French novelist and propagandist, died on July 1, 1961, at the age of 67.
Céline’s real name was Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches. His parents were middle class but had higher aspirations for their son. In his teens they sent him to live for a year in Germany and a year in England to learn the languages and cultures needed for a career in business or government.
When he returned to France he disappointed his parents by dropping out of school and being fired from a series of jobs. At 18 he enlisted in the French Army, two years before the outbreak of the First World War.
Originally unhappy with military discipline, Céline found war invigorating. He showed great courage and leadership and won a medal for heroism. He was wounded during a daring mission and was medically discharged.
Back in France he worked at various jobs with social agencies where his linguistic skills were an asset. He also worked on social projects in Africa and in the United States. He spent a period of time in Detroit, Michigan where he studied the Ford Motor plant’s assembly line, which he abhored as being dehumanising.
At the age of 25 he decided that he wanted to be a doctor. He re-enrolled in school and finished the baccalauréat (high school degree) which he had left uncompleted. Six years later he qualified as a doctor and began a career as an obstetrician.
Céline came late to the writing life. His first, and most important novel, Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) was published in 1932, when he was 38.
It is a genre defying story told using jargon and slang never used before in French literature. Nonetheless, it became successful in France, both commercially and critically. Today, it is considered to be a breakthrough book in French fiction.
Many modern French critics give Céline’s work its due importance in the history of French literature but refuse to accept it into the canon because of Céline’s repugnant views.
By the time Céline published Journey to the End of the Night he had become engulfed in the growing Fascist movement and used his new fame to promote his hateful ideology. He wrote many viciously anti-Semitic tracts in the 1930s and used his literary fame to advance Hitlerian views.
During France’s occupation in World War II, Céline continued to write in praise of Hitler and Nazism. After the war he went into exile in Denmark, spending a year in prison awaiting extradition to France as a collaborator.
He was allowed to return to France in 1951, where he continued to voice anti-Semitic views and Holocaust denialism.
Oddly enough, he was championed by avant garde writers like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (who was Jewish) who made pilgrimages to visit him, and by Charles Bukowski who called him the greatest writer of the 20th century.
Lately, there has been a vivid debate over how to recognize a literary genius who is also a vicious racist. How do we separate the venal man and his venal views from his literary legacy? Which is more vital ?
In France in 2017 there was a storm over proposed publication of Céline’s 1930s anti-Semitic writings for academic purposes. The publication has been halted.