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  • Born

    27 May 1894

  • Died

    1 July 1961 (aged 67)

Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (May 27, 1894 – July 1, 1961) was a French writer and doctor who wrote under the pen name Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Céline is considered one of the most influental and greatest 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 his political beliefs and the allegiances he adopted during the Second World War.

He was born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches at Courbevoie in the Seine département (now Hauts-de-Seine). Céline received only a basic education before he joined the French cavalry. He fought in World War I and was decorated for his actions in a battle where he was wounded in the right arm. Discharged from the Army, he worked in Africa. After the war he studied to obtain a medical degree. He then worked for the new League of Nations before taking up a permanent position as a doctor in Paris. He then started to write in his spare time.

His best-known work is Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night; 1932), 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). The book became a public success, but Céline was not awarded the Prix Goncourt; 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 Credit), giving innovative, chaotic, and antiheroic visions of human suffering.

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.

He wrote three antisemitic pamphlets called Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937), L'École des cadavres (1938) and Les Beaux draps (1941), he escaped judgment by fleeing to Germany (1944) and later to Denmark (1945). He defended these writings by claiming that he had wanted to warn the French people against another war, after the horrors of WWI. Branded a collaborator, he was condemned by default (1950) in France to one year of imprisonment and declared a national disgrace. Granted amnesty, he returned to France in 1951. He then published D'un château l'autre, a novel in which he described, with brilliant wit, the fall of Sigmaringen.

Fame came back to him in later life with a trilogy telling of his exile: D'un château l'autre, Nord and Rigodon. Céline died on July 1, 1961 of a ruptured aneurysm and was interred in a small cemetery at Bas Meudon (part of Meudon in the Hauts-de-Seine département).

Few first novels have had the impact of Celine's 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. Céline was unable to communicate with others, and during his life sank more deeply into a world of madness and rage. However if one wishes to say this then it must be qualified by the narrative of betrayal and exploitation, both real and imagined, that punctuated his life, for 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. Celine was highly influential on writers such as Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Billy Childish, Irvine Welsh and Charles Bukowski, Bukowski once said that "Journey to the End of the Night was the best book written in the last two thousand years."

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