Uncovering Céline

Bagatelles pour un massacre [Trifles for a Massacre]

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Denoël, 379 pp. (1937)

L'École des cadavres [The School of Corpses]

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Denoël, 272 pp. (1938)

Les Beaux Draps [A Fine Mess]

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Les Nouvelles Éditions Françaises, 158 pp. (1941)

Normance

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, translated from the French and with an introduction by Marlon Jones
Dalkey Archive, 371 pp., $14.95 (paper)
mason_1-011410.jpg
Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Louis-Ferdinand Céline with his dogs, Meudon, France, circa 1955

1.

Louis-Ferdinand Destouches met Cillie Pam in Paris, at the Café de la Paix, in September 1932. Destouches was a physician who worked at a public clinic in Clichy treating poor and working-class patients; Pam was a twenty-seven-year-old Viennese gymnastics instructor eleven years his junior on a visit to the city. Destouches suggested a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne, took Pam to dinner later that night, and afterward took her home. Two weeks together began, after which Pam returned to her work and life in Vienna. Over the next seven years, they saw each other infrequently but corresponded regularly. Pam, who was Jewish, married and had a son. Destouches, who wrote in his free time, became famous shortly after their brief affair, his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, published at the end of 1932 under the pseudonym “Céline” (his maternal grandmother’s first name), proving an enormous success. In February 1939, Destouches received word that Pam had lost her husband: he had been seized, sent to Dachau, and killed. On February 21, Destouches wrote to Pam, who had fled abroad:

Dear Cillie,

What awful news! At least you’re far away, on the other side of the world. Were you able to take a little money with you? Obviously, you’re going to start a new life over there. How will you work? Where will Europe be by the time you receive this letter? We’re living over a volcano.

On my side, my little dramas are nothing compared to yours (for the moment), but tragedy looms nonetheless….

Because of my anti-Semitic stance I’ve lost all my jobs (Clichy, etc.) and I’m going to court on March 8. You see, Jews can persecute too.

How a reader responds to this letter is, I suspect, a fair predictor of how capable he or she might be of tolerat-ing the extreme disjunctions that predominate in the life and art of its author. One of Céline’s biographers, for example, describes the letter as possessing “a curious blend of concern and sheer tactless selfishness,” a response that itself seems to exhibit its own curious blend of sheer shortsightedness and apologism. Another biographer calls it, reasonably if inadequately, “astonishing,” but does offer the useful detail that Pam, upon receipt of the letter, “never saw [Destouches] again and stopped writing.”

My own sense is that such a letter would astonish most readers—words of condolence over anti-Semitic violence do not often contain anti-Semitic sympathies—except those who have read not only Céline’s novels but also what have been inaccurately termed, for generations, his “anti-Semitic pamphlets.” Alas, no English-speaking reader who does not know French could make so comprehensive a survey. Though all eight of Céline’s novels are now available in dependable English translations, the so-called anti-Semitic pamphlets have never been…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.