A novel by one of France’s most celebrated authors, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, is being published Thursday, nearly 90 years after it was written. Part of a collection of lost manuscripts that are being released this year, the book has won over literary critics, despite the fact Celine is known as one of France’s most avid Nazi collaborators.
Celine’s lost manuscripts are part of an exhibition that opens Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery. It is called “Celine, Recovered Manuscripts”, and includes the original hand-written pages of Guerre (War), an autobiographical novel about his experience in the World War I.
Gallimard, France’s most prestigious book publisher, is expecting blockbuster sales for Guerre, despite Celine’s known anti-Semitism.
He was one of France’s most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II.
Mystery of the manuscripts
Celine left Paris in a hurry in June 1944, sensing that the tide of the war was turning and he would be a target of Allied forces.
He headed to Germany, leaving behind his unpublished manuscripts in his Montmartre flat. Those papers disappeared, and he accused members of the resistance of burning them.
But it turns out the papers had been kept, and in the 2000s, the 6,000 pages ended up in the hands of a former journalist, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat.
Thibaudat offered them to Celine’s heirs, who did not want them, so he went to the police, who made them public in the summer of 2021.
Gallimard immediately wanted to publish them, before Celine’s oeuvre ends up in the public domain in 2032.
The reviews for Guerre, the first of the novels to come out of the manuscripts, have been glowing. Many seem keen to separate early Celine, the novelist, from later Celine, as his anti-Semitism manifested itself openly only in a first tract published in 1937 .
Guerre is thought to have been written in 1934, shortly after the publication of Celine’s first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) in 1932.
That novel, filled with slang, and poking at bourgeois sensibilities, made him famous, and it is still taught in schools.
French publisher determined to reprint Celine’s anti-Semitic tracts
Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is autobiographical. It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand waking up on a Belgian battlefield one evening in 1915, miraculously alive.
Ferdinand is saved by a British soldier, and the novel follows his recovery and his hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences during WWI.
Another newly discovered novel in the manuscripts, Londres (London), recounts his time in England, and will be published this autumn.
Eliding Celine’s anti-Semitism
There are mysteries about why the books were not published at the time they were written, on the heels of the success of Journey to the End of the Night.
Guerre has explicit, sexual content, which may have offended sensibilities at the time. Also, the political climate was changing, and Celine was turning away from novels to political pamphlets.
He published Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre) in 1937, in which he openly revealed his anti-Semitism for the first time.
He published two other anti-Semitic tracts during the war, and after he launched a campaign of Holocaust denial.
Celine muddied the waters about his experience during the war and the occupation, allowing him to make his way back into France without facing any repercussions.
Originally published on RFI