A Journey to the End of Céline

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Louis-Ferdinand Céline (real name Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches) was a French novelist and doctor best known for his book Journey to the End of the Night (in French: Voyage au bout de la nuit). Although not particularly widely read in the United States anymore, Céline is still considered one of the most influential French writers of the 20th century. His impact, if traced through the rather pretentious halls of literary history, was large and far-reaching.

Born in 1894, Céline spent his formative years alternatively attending school and working the odd job until the age of 18, when he finally decided to become a doctor. Before doing so however, he joined the French Army two years before the start of WWI to serve a 3-year stint in the 12th Cuirassier Regiment (not to be confused with the 13th Cuirassier Regiment). At first unhappy, he eventually adapted, serving with gusto. From the beginning, Céline’s unit saw action and it was on October 25, 1914 that Céline was wounded in the right arm delivering a message under heavy, sustained German fire. Not thinking his wound was cool enough to get the ladies, he instead perpetuated the rumor that he was shot in the head. Regardless of the actual location of his wound, he was a French medal and featured in the weekly  l’Illustré National of November 1915.

Céline say what!

Eventually, after moving to London to work in the French passport office, he was discharged from the military due his arm wound making him physically unfit for duty. Sometime during 1916, he visited Africa, but then he returned and decided to become a doctor (I’m aware of the lack of detail in the above sentence…not much is known about the trip). In 1919, Céline, who was finishing the second part of his baccalauréat, met Monsieur Follet, the director of the medical school in Rennes. Befriending him (and eventually marrying his daughter), Céline was accepted into the university at Rennes. He finished his formal medical schooling by 1923. His thesis, often considered his first literary work, was on the life and work of Ignaz Semmelweis (coincidentally, the thesis was named The Life and Work of Ignaz Semmelweis). 

In 1925, after working a mere year as an intern in a Paris maternity hospital, Céline left his family, whom he would never see again (his family included his wife Edith Follet, and their daughter Collette Destouches who was born in 1920). He began working for the League of Nations and travelled around the world before eventually settling back in Paris, where he set up a private practice specializing in obstretrics.

1932 saw the publication of Céline’s best known work Journey to the End of the Night. Upon publication it immediately caused a stir for its use of rhythms, slang and vulgar speech.  Based on Céline’s own life story, it was a book full of nihilistic, cynical humor. In the work itself, he lambasted human nature, human institutions, and humanity altogether. His unbridled pessimism would be a cornerstone of his writings to follow. Death on the Installment Plan was published in 1936, and it too offered much of the characteristic pessimism Céline was known for. Additionally, it cataloged the full spectrum of human suffering.

From here, Céline’s life went downhill (don’t worry, it was his own fault). In the late 1930s, as Europe spun towards WWII, Céline began publishing a series of antisemitic pamphlets. Beyond his normal pessimism, the pamphlets also contained large doses of racism, bigotry and antisemitism. Right before the war started, Céline even campaigned for an alliance between France and Nazi Germany.

After the occupation of France, Céline continued to write antisemitic works, often submitting letters to several collaborationist journals. Interestingly enough, some Nazis even though the writers antisemitic harangues were a bit over the top, containing “filthy slang” and “brutal obscenities”. When Germany finally lost the war in 1945, he fled to Denmark. Named a collaborator and sentenced to one-year in prison for the crime of being an asshole, Céline was granted amnesty and returned to France in 1951 (I am not sure why this is, but it seems unfortunate).

As his life progressed, Céline eventually regained his fame through a trilogy of books that described his exile. However, he would forever bemoan his ruined reputation, never expressing regret or guilt for his antisemitic works. Instead, he would continually publish more statements of Holocaust Denial until his death in 1961.

During the writing of this article, I kept opening websites dedicated to Celine Dion.

While I do not support or endorse the man himself, I do find many of his works interesting, if only for their purely literary value. Although he garnished a reputation as a bigoted antisemite in his later life, his first novels were instead more of an equal opportunity invective against all races and all people. Even today, his novels are cited as wonderful examples of extreme pessimism, black comedy, and nihilism.

If you want to know more about Céline, I suggest reading Journey to the End of the Night or Death on the Installment Plan. In addition, you can find a biography of the man here. If, on the other hand, you’d rather read more about other artists/writers/people who created things, visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter!

Writers Who Became Famous Posthumously

In today’s world, where the pinnacle of success lies in fame, it is a strange concept to think that a few hundred years ago, people were rarely known for their works. Rather, they created for the love of creating, and it was quite often that only in later centuries (namely after the 18th century), did these characters in history develop into world-wide phenomenons. Even today, while lots of people struggle to make a name for themselves, it is helpful to step back and realize that sometimes creation and enjoyment are the most important parts of day-to-day living. Many of our now most-famous writers weren’t nearly as popular during their lives. It is only after their deaths (sometimes unfortunate, sometimes of natural causes) that we have re-papered their lives and works into the new pantheon of fame. Below are some authors who only gained recognition after their deaths.

1. Emily Dickinson

By the time she died in 1886 from Bright’s Disease, she had only published seven poems. She had written some 1800 over the course of her life. Her sister Lavinia, who was supposed to destroy them after Emily’s death, instead edited the works with the help of two friends and published Dickinson’s collection.

Dickinson: punk skaterboy haircut 200 years too early

Over a hundred years later, she is now taught in many classrooms around the world. She was even commemorated with a US Postal Service stamp in 1971. You can find some of her works here for free.

2. Franz Kafka

While he was alive, Kafka only published a few of his unfinished pieces of work. It wasn’t until after his death in 1924 that he became well-known for his works, including the well-known Metamorphosis (find here for almost free). Instead, he spent most of his life working and quitting the odd job so he could have more time to write.

Kafka before he turned into a roach

Fun fact (not fun at all, actually. Mostly sad): He died of starvation because he was suffering from tuberculosis and eating was too painful.

3. Henry David Thoreau

Although he published two books while he was alive, both were unpopular and read by very few people. To support himself, he spent time doing many the odd job, including work as Emerson’s handyman, an English tutor and teacher, and as an employee of his family’s nail business (no, he wasn’t Korean. I am talking nails for hammers).

Thoreau-ly unknown

As part of his post-death vindication, he remains widely read and has influenced a number of other famous people, including Gandhi and Tolstoy (and a certain blog writer). If you want to let him influence you as well, find Walden here (free on Kindle).

4. Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, too, is another writer who was on the cusp of fame during his entire life. However, his published works never received much money, nor garnered much readership. He sold one of his now-most-famous pieces, The Raven, for $9 (even in 1800s money, that’s not much). Most of the rest was published for free.

Poe is well-known of for his themes of the gruesome and macabre, but during the time this wasn’t very popular. He went out in typical Poe fashion, dying drunk in the streets of Baltimore. The cause of his death is still a popular source of speculation. The various suspects range from heart disease to suicide to rampant alcoholism to rabies (didn’t make that one up). To read some of his work (once again, for free), go here.

Poe: obviously afflicted by rabies

5. William Blake

A hard worker, Blake went largely unrecognized during his lifetime. He worked not only as poet (for which he is most commonly remembered now), but also as a painter and printmaker. Before he got his start writing, he was a professional engraver. Upon his death, Blake’s works were largely forgotten for more than a generation. It wasn’t until the 1860s that he was dredged out of the unknown masses and pushed into the spotlights by a biographer, Alexander Gilchrist. From that moment on, he was associated with a number of various artistic and religious movements, most notably the Beat poets of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. Unlike most of the writers in this post, he died next to his lovely wife in relative peace. Like the others, find some of his works for free here.

Blake post-fame

Other Notables:

Stieg Larsson, Sylvia Plath, Schopenhauer, Henry Darger, John Donne (as made famous by T.S. Eliot 300 years later), and John Fante (dragged from obscurity by Charles Bukowski).

Know of any other writers who are now famous who weren’t so “lucky” during their lifetimes? Are you dead and want to become famous? Let us know in the comments below! Also, be sure to visit us on Facebook or Twitter!