SubStance 32.3 (2003) 29-42
[Access article in PDF]
The Success of the Monstre Sacré in Postwar France
In his excellent study of the way in which Louis-Ferdinand Céline is portrayed in French school textbooks, Alain Cresciucci refers to the author's "classicisation remarquable" (220), by which, and in spite of "une contre réception pugnace," Céline moved from the near-oblivion of the Pariah in the 1950s and 1960s to canonical status by the end of the twentieth century, becoming a "modèle de l'auteur devenu classique" (221). In fact, the case of Céline is highly instructive, not least because of the extremes between which his reputation lurches, providing valuable insight into the process and effectiveness of the Epuration following the Liberation, and into the workings of literary history itself.
Most accounts of Céline's life depict his career as a classic tale of riches to rags, by which a highly talented writer throws away his literary reputation through inexplicable and unjustifiable political decisions that lead him to exile and imprisonment and to long-term critical and popular neglect. It is certainly true that the major events in Céline's life after 1932 would appear to support such an interpretation. The success of Voyage au bout de la nuit propelled the hitherto unknown Céline to the forefront of the French literary stage and, in spite of his constant complaints to his publisher, Denoël, made him a wealthy man, able to indulge his taste for travel, staying in Europe's finest hotels and crossing the Atlantic by luxury liner.
This lionization, astutely stage-managed by Denoël, included the prestigious annual Zola address in Médan in 1934, and lasted up until the end of 1936, when Céline, apparently emulating the hero of his medical doctoral thesis, Semmelweis, wilfully sabotaged the Left-wing foundations of his literary support, first through his denunciation of Soviet Marxism in Mea culpa, and, more seriously, through the anti-Semitic pamphlets, Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937), L'Ecole des cadavres (1938), and Les Beaux draps, published at the height of the Occupation in 1941. The writer's widow, Lucette Destouches, has always maintained (most recently in her conversations with Véronique Robert), that Céline's aim in publishing his anti-Semitic writing was purely pacifistic: [End Page 29]
Il a toujours affirmé avoir écrit ses pamphlets en 1938 et 1939 [sic] dans un but pacifique, et rien de plus. Pour lui, les juifs poussaient à la guerre et il voulait l'éviter. C'est tout. (Robert, 127-8)
Ces pamphlets ont existé dans un certain contexte historique, à une époque particulière, et ne nous ont apporté à Louis et à moi que du malheur. (ibid., 128)
Following the anti-Communism of Mea culpa and the anti-Semitism of the pamphlets, Céline's literary and personal fate was sealed by his perceived collaboration throughout the period of the Occupation, through his letters to notorious journals like Je suis partout and La Gerbe and his frequenting of major figures in the world of Parisian collaboration, both French and German. This collaborationist activity, compounded by his flight to Germany, where he met up with the cream of the Vichy regime in Sigmaringen, was ultimately punished when he was arrested by the Danish police, imprisoned while the French government attempted to extradite him, and kept in exile in Denmark until he was amnestied in 1951. As Lucette Destouches recalls, the experience of prison changed Céline permanently:
En deux ans ce n'était plus le même homme, il était devenu vieux. Il marchait avec une canne, avait tous les jours des malaises et plus de ses crises habituelles de paludisme.
La première guerre en avait fait la moitié d'un homme, plus qu'une oreille, un seul bras et une tête en ébullition. La prison l'a achevé. Elle a fait de lui un mort vivant. A Meudon, pendant les dix ans qui ont précédé sa mort, il n'était déjà plus là...