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From Louis-Ferdinand Destouches to Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Half a century to write about Céline! In 1972, literature student Frédéric Vitoux defended a thesis on Céline.

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From Louis-Ferdinand Destouches to Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Half a century to write about Céline! In 1972, literature student Frédéric Vitoux defended a thesis on Céline. Revised, it was published in 1973 in the Gallimard “Essais” collection under the title: Céline, misery and speech. This was followed by Bébert, L.F. Céline's cat in 1976 (Grasset), Céline in 1987 (Belfond) and La Vie de Céline in 1988 (Grasset).

A fascinating biographical summary for any honest man wishing to know more about the man who was, with Proust, a monument of French literature of the 20th century. Available in Folio, these thousand pages reappear in a new revised and enlarged edition. At the same time, Frédéric Vitoux signed L'Album Louis-Ferdinand Céline, published by Éditions Gallimard in the "Pléiade".

For the Celine specialist, the challenge was daunting: to condense the 1000 pages of his biography to keep only 250, knowing that 221 illustrations certainly enrich the text but also reduce its space. Once again, the man from Île Saint-Louis, the lover of Venice and cats, succeeds in telling the story of a life in a chaotic century with talent. To insist, once again, on the capital place occupied by the First World War in the history of the man who is still only the young Louis Destouches. “This is what (…) was decisive for him: the learning of the horror, of the murderous and suicidal madness of the men who jostled each other to mount the assault, but also his own hallucinations, his headaches, his atrocious auditory humming which pushed him, the writer, to elevate his discouraged vision of the world to delirium. We remember this passage from War, a stolen manuscript, found and published last year by Gallimard: “I have always slept like this in the atrocious noise since December 14. I caught the war in my head. It's locked in my head."

Then comes the relatively unknown London episode, where Céline discovers a passion for the slums, the slums of Soho and the East Side, whores and pimps, all kinds of traffickers. Vitoux wonders: “Could Louis then have swung to the other side of the law, become a pimp, in short, life was easy for the man eager for new experiences and perhaps even for the future writer he did not imagine himself becoming yet? Only certainty, the young man marries a compatriot, dancer and trainer of bar. A marriage without a future, not registered by the French authorities. This memorable stay will inspire him in London, the second unpublished manuscript found.

There will be, just after, the African experience. Again, we learn some interesting things. Louis Destouches signs a contract with a forestry company based in Cameroon. Vitoux specifies: “Beyond the clichés and the vocabulary of the time on Blacks, no deep racism animates him, as his letters would testify. Rather an immense compassion for what the Africans he meets endure. The biographer even quotes these crazy passages from a letter to a childhood friend in which Destouches, stationed in a village by the ocean, recognizes that "the sarcastic bitterness left by the past is softening", and he adds “I am absolutely, exclusively, perfectly happy for a moment.”

There, where everyone is constantly the victim of fever and infections, Louis Destouches does his best to relieve the men. He asks his uncle's doctor to send him medicine and treatment. "Isn't this, for him, a real apprenticeship in medicine, on the job, before thinking of becoming a doctor?" writes Vitoux. Injuries received in combat forced him to leave Africa for London again. Before being recruited by the Rockefeller Foundation “for a mission to fight against tuberculosis in Brittany”. In Rennes, he met Doctor Follet, professor of clinical medicine, and his daughter Edith. After passing his baccalaureate, Louis Destouches marries her. Years later, the divorce consummated, she will tell Vitoux about remembering Louis "in those years, with his big white scarf, elegant, even dandy, perfumed with Guerlain, stunning seducer...". They will have a daughter, Colette, in 1920.

Destouches studied medicine in Paris. From his thesis devoted to The Life and Work of Philippe Ignace Semmelweis, defended in 1924, Vitoux cites a few examples. The Destouches style strikes: "In the History of time, life is only drunkenness, Truth is Death" or "the too sad hour always comes when Happiness, this absolute and superb confidence in life, makes room for Truth in the human heart. From Geneva, where he worked for the health service of the SDN, he was sent to New York. We remember his first impressions recorded in Le Voyage: “Just imagine that their city was standing, absolutely straight. New York is a standing city. He then wrote, “in a funny and grimacing way”, a play, The Church, a summary of his experiences in Africa and New York which prefigures Le Voyage.

In Geneva, the dandy met a beautiful 24-year-old American who made his head spin, Elizabeth Craig. He will dedicate Le Voyage au bout de la nuit to him in 1932. We do not know when he started writing this novel Vitoux. "How could Louis Destouches, the man torn between his professional occupations and his dissipations, find the time, solitude and silence necessary to write his book and bring it to fruition?" He recalls that the one who chose to sign Louis-Ferdinand Céline sends his manuscript to Gallimard with a letter that lacks neither salt nor intuition: “It is bread for an entire century of literature. It is the Prix Goncourt 1932 in an armchair for the Happy Publisher who will be able to retain this unparalleled work, this capital moment of human nature…”

Gallimard, which had already missed Proust, took too long to react, and it was the young house Denoël which published it on October 20, 1932. Céline missed the Goncourt, which crowned Les Loups by a certain Guy Mazeline. The Renaudot prize is a cold consolation. Celine is enraged. Yet he triumphed in bookstores and among his peers, from Bernanos to Elsa Triolet, from Barbusse to Mauriac, received nothing but praise. He accumulates liaisons with very pretty women. It is far from the debates that agitated the intellectuals of the time. He writes a lot. Prepares Mort on credit and meets Lucette Almansor at the end of 1935, a young 23-year-old dancer who will enter her life never to leave it.

And then he publishes anti-Semitic pamphlets. Trivia for a massacre, The School of Corpses. Vitoux sums up, implacably: “He botches and loops filthy, paranoid pages, of racial and scatological violence to lift the heart. He abandons himself to the great unpacking of his anxieties and resentments, which are further amplified by his cerebral and auditory hallucinations. The war is here. It is soon the fall of the Céline house. Flight to Germany. Prison in Denmark. The return to France and the trial in 1950. Conviction and amnesty. Installation in Meudon. The dandy who has become almost a bum, “an asocial and prophetic hermit who declares that he is waiting for the arrival of the Chinese in Meudon”. The morbid need for money, the desire to see his work in the “Pléiade” became the obsessions of a worn-out man. And Vitoux to conclude his formidable album: “The rest no longer belongs to Céline, but to the history of literature.”

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