The Moral Delusions of Patriotism: On Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “War”

Charlie Taylor reviews the new English translation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “lost” novel, “War.”

By Charlie TaylorJune 12, 2024

The Moral Delusions of Patriotism: On Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “War”

War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. New Directions. 144 pages.

IN A BASEMENT, a “dull light-colored wooden box” contained one of the most spectacular literary discoveries in France. Biographers of the controversial and enigmatic writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline had been searching for a series of manuscripts, written during World War II, that had been lost for nearly 70 years. On August 4, 2021, Le Monde published a three-page story on the author’s “rediscovered treasures.” It was hailed as the literary discovery of the past-century, with Céline biographer Émile Brami acclaiming it “an unprecedented event.”

Threatened by the French Resistance in June 1944, Céline had sewn gold coins into the linings of his jacket and, with his wife Lucette, run away from the oncoming liberation of France. Following in the footsteps of the fleeing Vichy government, Céline spent several days at the Sigmaringen Castle in Southern Germany before moving on to Denmark, where he spent six years in exile. Condemned for his sympathies toward fascism, which included writing a series of antisemitic pamphlets, the most notorious being Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937) and L’École des cadavres (1938), the author was branded as a Nazi apologist at best, an open collaborator at worst.

Yet, even after his return to France in 1951 and his semi-rehabilitation as a major writer, Céline spent the rest of his life raging about the manuscripts he had lost during his flight and exile. He assumed they had been “looted” in the chaotic last days of the German occupation of Paris. In a 1950 letter to his friend Pierre Monnier, Céline complained that he had heard “the whole continuation and ending” of his work in progress, Casse-pipe, had been thrown “into the dustbins on Avenue Junot.”

A variety of Céline biographers unsuccessfully tried to trace these prewar manuscripts. Brami himself had long suspected that Oscar Rosembly, a resister in Montmartre during the war who had done some bookkeeping for Céline during the Occupation, had stolen the work. Rosembly, who was arrested for looting the flats of right-wing intellectuals in September 1944, returned at the end of his life to his hometown of Poggiolo in Corsica, along with, Brami assumed, the missing works. A face-to-face meeting with the man’s daughter after his death broke down at the last minute, and the documents did not resurface.

It was only when Céline’s widow Lucette died in 2019 that the manuscripts, held in secret by Libération journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, came to light. In fact, the manuscripts had been held all along by someone Céline had himself suspected: Yvon Morandat, a member of the Resistance who was close to one of the movement’s main heroes, Jean Moulin. In September 1944, Morandat had requisitioned Céline’s Montmartre flat and lived there for several years. Decades later, Morandat’s daughter stumbled onto the materials in her father’s basement, entrusting them to Thibaudat in 1982 under the strict condition that they would not be released until Céline’s widow had died, both to stop the texts from being edited to suppress controversial content and to prevent her from financially profiting from the material.

Even today, Céline remains controversial in France. In 2017, the French publisher Gallimard’s proposal to republish an edited collection of his early antisemitic pamphlets caused an outcry in France, threats of legal action, and even the vocal intervention of French president Emmanuel Macron. Céline’s reputation continues to be ambivalent if not controversial: he is at once revered as a modernist genius due to the penetrating psychological insight of novels like Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) and equally condemned for his virulent antisemitism, which continues to haunt reappraisals of his work.

Among the contents of the uncovered manuscripts are two full-length novels, Londres and La Volonté du Roi Krogold, as well as numerous early drafts and correspondence. The papers also contained a 100-page manuscript titled Guerre (War), which has been translated into English by Charlotte Mandell and will be published by New Directions this month as a stand-alone novella. A hallucinatory romp through the early days of the First World War, it follows Ferdinand, Céline’s antihero from Journey to the End of the Night, from his ambush by German soldiers to his lengthy convalescence in a rural town. Both War and Londres, which was published in France by Gallimard in 2022, provide a narrative link between Journey and Death on the Installment Plan, built around a cast of characters who return in the postwar novel Guignol’s Band (1944). Along with Ferdinand, this group includes Bébert (who is also referred to in the manuscript as Cascade) and his wife Angèle, and the story tackles similar themes to those explored in the earlier works, navigating a critique of contemporary France through the lens of the traumas inflicted by World War I.

Injured at the opening of War, Ferdinand finds himself wounded to the head, and subjected to an “excruciating noise” from which he can’t escape. Making his way to the British lines and then to a military hospital, he continues to find his convalescence impeded by this noise, which has become inescapable. “I no longer slept long enough to have clear thoughts that you can hold on to,” Ferdinand confesses. From this initial awakening into a nightmare, Céline follows his purgatorial existence as he sleepwalks back into civilian life. Far from an ending to the horrors of war, the home front reveals its own hallucinatory world of violence, cruelty, and trauma. In a stream of virtually unedited and uncensored confessions, Ferdinand condemns the reborn French Republic from the perspective of an unstable wounded soldier unable to assimilate back into everyday life.

In one passage, as he is being moved by train to a military hospital, the corpses of Ferdinand’s comrades materialize around him, and he finds himself speaking to them. But “their eyes were closed. They were reproaching me. In short they’d come to keep watch over me,” he speculates. “They said nothing at first, and finally it was Cambelech, who’d gone behind me, who spoke. I wasn’t expecting him: his face was all split in two, his lower jaw was hanging in disgusting shreds.” Using his hands to make his mouth work, Cambelech tells Ferdinand, “We’re not happy, no we’re not, that’s not the kind of story we need.”

In October 1914, during a mission to deliver information between two attacking divisions, Céline himself had been ambushed by German soldiers, suffering a bullet wound to his right arm and an injury to his ear. As he languished in a military hospital, his bravery was rewarded with a Médaille militaire bestowed by General Joseph Joffre, the commander in chief of the French forces, and the event was reported in the patriotic journal L’illustré national, with Céline dramatically depicted on horseback facing the ambush. Damian Catani, in his recent biography Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journeys to the Extreme (2021), points out that, beyond physical injuries to his arms, it was likely during his rehabilitation that he began to suffer from Ménière’s disease, a chronic illness that affects hearing and balance. The symptoms include deafness, vertigo, tinnitus, and auditory hallucinations, and the syndrome was most likely triggered in Céline’s case by his being flung into a tree from the force of an exploding shell.

The trauma of war was a prominent theme in Céline’s work in the 1930s. Journey is similarly confessional but develops into a critique of French society at large, with the battlefield psychologically corrupting not only the frontline soldier but also civilian society through its insidious and pervasive influence. War likewise offers a critique on the facade of an older bourgeois patriotism forced to deal with the moral contradictions and epochal traumas of World War I. The front lines may offer the immediacy of bloody horror, but further back, in the hospitals, mess kitchens, brothels, and military tribunals, the suspension of normalcy has become acute, catalyzing an ethical disintegration of French society writ large.

In Céline’s uncensored account of the experience of war, he continually works against the expected clichés of military heroism. Ferdinand is a pathetic imitation of what France seeks to valorize—a cowardly, lying soldier who cares less about comradeship and patriotic commitment than about ensuring that his wounds are severe enough that he will not have to return to the front lines. But what begins as a feigned madness soon turns genuine, as the unrelenting noise of war in his head threatens to overwhelm him. One evening, a comrade from the hospital, Bébert, who has been pimping out his wife to English and Belgian soldiers, sits down at the piano and comically shouts that he will “sing for France. […] you’ll never shut me up, you hear me?” He then proceeds, accompanied by Ferdinand, to deliver a haunting rendition of a patriotic song, an unnerving performance wrung from two wounded, deeply disillusioned soldiers.

Like Céline himself, Ferdinand is astonished by the reversal of fortune he enjoys after being awarded the Médaille militaire. When Ferdinand’s petit bourgeois parents take him to a dinner with a local insurance broker, Monsieur Harnache, the family gorge themselves on a large feast. Yet when they bring up the war, Ferdinand hears only his “buzzing head,” musing cynically that “their enormous optimistic, insane, rotten idiocy” was being used to cover up

all the degradations which they didn’t even accept since acknowledging them would be to despair a little of the world and of life and they didn’t want to despair of anything despite everything, even the war which was going on under Monsieur Harnache’s windows with full battalions and which we could still hear rumbling from bombs echoing everywhere in all the windows of the house.

For Ferdinand as much as for Céline, the war’s consequences go beyond personal traumas, with patriotism becoming a tenuous veil for the sickness and tensions pervading civilian life. The movement between these two worlds drives much of the comedic punch of the novel. When it is discovered that Bébert has shot himself in the foot in order to escape the front, and the military police begin to close in on him, he tries to drown himself in a lake. “It’s too shallow,” Ferdinand says to him, “you sucker! It’s too shallow. You’re just shit-deep—it’s hilarious!”

In his house in Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, Céline lived a quiet life after returning from exile. He spent his last 10 years tending to a few patients as a medical doctor while continuing to write. His reputation drew literary admirers to him, and in 1958, he had a largely disappointing visit from Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. As his health started to decline, he continued to rage about his lost manuscripts from his secluded house. A few days before his death in 1961, he complained, “They’ve taken enough from me, robbed me of enough, taken everything away.”

LARB Contributor

Charlie Taylor is a writer and current graduate student at the University of Oxford. He works on histories of modern France.


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