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Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Journeys to the Extreme

The first English-language biography in more than two decades of the French writer, one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.
 
Louis-Ferdinand Céline was one of the most innovative novelists of the twentieth century, and his influence both in his native France and beyond remains huge. This book sheds light on Céline’s groundbreaking novels, which drew extensively on his complex life: he rose from humble beginnings to worldwide literary fame, then dramatically fell from grace only to return, belatedly, to the limelight. Céline’s subversive writing remains fresh and urgent today, despite his controversial political views and inflammatory pamphlets that threatened to ruin his reputation. The first English-language biography of Céline in more than two decades, this book explores new material and reminds us why the author belongs in the pantheon of modern greats.

400 pages | 26 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

Biography and Letters


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Reviews

"Louis-Ferdinand Céline is comprehensive and lucid. . . . The book is particularly good on the scandal of Céline being republished. . . . Aside from the political iniquities, Catani argues that Céline wasn't an unrepentant pessimist but a badly bruised optimist. It is hard to believe, as we are informed, that the razor-tongued Céline composed a ballet called The Birth of a Fairy."

Tibor Fischer | Spectator

"Catani's account of this extraordinary life is as admirably detailed and forensic as any Céline biography I have read, in French or English. It is far more readable than most, capturing the same picaresque tone as Céline's early novels. . . . A fine biography."

Literary Review

"Catani does plenty of work to tie his reading of Celine’s life to the present day, spotlighting, for instance, a strain of contemporary French scholarship that interprets the author’s anti-Semitic writings as hiding 'behind an ironic aesthetic façade.' Readers interested in the perennial debate about whether or how to separate the art from the artist will find much to consider in this thoughtful work."

Publishers Weekly

"Catani’s refreshing and dramatic biography of Céline is a serious piece of work. It assesses his achievements and failures in a level-headed and carefully presented manner. While not all will concur with Catani’s precise weighting of evidence or agree with his conclusions, none will doubt his sincerity and diligence. The thoroughness of the sources and footnotes attest to that."

The Critic

"The first full-length examination of Céline’s life and work in more than twenty years, and the first to explore the fastest-growing debate of Céline scholarship—whether people should continue reading a Nazi sympathizer. A large chunk of this book considers various opinions, which fall into several obvious camps: those who argue against reading Céline; those who argue he was a nihilist but not a Nazi; those who argue his politics had little to do with the lasting greatness of his books, since the foremost among them—Journey to the End of Night—was published before his fascist polemics started coming along. . . . While Catani provides a fairly robust critical argument for continuing to read Céline, much of this book has less to do with Céline the writer than with our current anxieties about the responsibilities of literature."

New Republic

“In this major new biography of Céline, Damian Catani deftly weaves together the life and the work allowing each to illuminate the other in a brilliant portrait. One of the twentieth century’s most important literary figures, Céline emerges here in all his ambivalence, his outstanding talent as a writer matched only by his obvious flaws as an individual.”

Ian James, Reader in Modern French Literature and Thought, University of Cambridge, and author of "The Technique of Thought" and "The New French Philosophy"

“One of the best French writers ever, who re-invented the very language of literature, and a complete SALOPARD.”

Marie Darrieussecq

Excerpt

When we read Céline, we are frequently placed in the same uncomfortable position as he put Elizabeth Craig, whose bubble of middle-class privilege he was determined to burst. He wants us to know, just as he wants her to know, that far from being a ‘beautiful journey’, life, as he observes in his debut novel, is a ‘journey to the end of the night’. Just like its title, the book immediately grabs our attention, never to relinquish it. It drags us, often against our will, into the darkest corners of the human psyche, confronting us with the ugliest unspoken truths, which we would much prefer to keep at arm’s length. The much-discussed ‘shock value’ of Céline’s novels is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Its purpose is to awaken our social conscience by confronting us with the full spectrum of human injustice and the stark realization that we are often powerless in the face of suffering.
 
This powerlessness is especially felt by those at the bottom of the social ladder, with whose dire circumstances Céline became all too familiar. His life, in many ways, was a moral education on the plight of the underdog. As a soldier who was badly injured in the trenches, a supervisor in the colonial plantations of Africa and, later, a doctor who did his daily rounds in Paris slums at the height of the Depression, he saw ordinary people systematically being trampled underfoot, as the indifferent authorities stood idly by. His works seethe with anger and exasperation at this cynical exploitation of the little man. Yet as with life itself, they catch us by surprise by salvaging unexpected nuggets of comedy gold from even the most hopeless situations. At its best, Céline’s prose is charged with an almost unbearable tension, like a finely tuned violin whose strings threaten to break at any given moment. It excels in walking that tightrope between the tragic and the comic, by employing a style that repels us with its visceral, hard-hitting depiction of reality, while at the same time drawing us in with a coruscating black humour that generates outrageous moments of unexpected hilarity at the sheer absurdity of man’s fate.
 
By striking the right balance between despair and happiness, Céline’s novels succeed where his life often failed. They can be considered journeys to the extreme in their willingness to tackle taboo subjects and push stylistic boundaries to the limit with their satirical use of slang and disruption of narrative flow, which, even today, still irk some traditionalists. From Death on Credit onwards, Céline’s boldest and most contentious stylistic departure was his increasing use of ellipsis, which he referred to as ‘les trois points’ (‘three dots’). In this book, where three dots appear
in quotations from Céline’s novels and letters, these are his own, unless they are in square brackets, in which case they indicate a deliberate elision on my part.
 
But the moral and aesthetic risks of Céline’s journeys are handsomely rewarded by their destination: few can match Céline’s searingly honest account of the injustice of war and social oppression. In the early 1930s, he was heralded as the voice of the people. But from 1937 onwards, the anti-war stance of his fiction that had earned him such praise and admiration began to take him in a more sinister direction. The laudable pacifism of his novels became distorted by the hateful bigotry of his pamphlets. What was previously a justified satire of military and institutional authority turned into an irrational zealous crusade against the Jews, whom he wrongly blamed for trying to wage another war on Hitler. Céline was in grave danger of trading his humane literary transgressiveness for a hateful political extremism. He foolishly took his eye off the ball by cutting off the supply line that had made him such a great writer: his own inner life. Instead of mining the rich seam of his personal experiences to delve deep into the human condition, he succumbed to the external distractions of fascism, by advocating a French alliance with Hitler as the only way to avoid a new war. It would be a long road back for Céline to regain the trust and esteem of the public and critics who had once embraced him. He spent the 1950s clawing his way back into their affections by turning inwards once again and making himself – and not politics – the primary source of his writing.
 
It is not as if Céline’s life was dull and lacking in incident. He had no shortage of exciting raw material on which to draw. Born Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie, on 27 May 1894, he would become a jeweller’s apprentice, soldier in a cavalry regiment, war invalid, trader on an African cocoa plantation, doctor, globetrotting head of the hygiene section in the League of Nations, acclaimed novelist, polemicist, fugitive, political prisoner, social pariah and eccentric recluse. As an adolescent, he already felt different from the herd. Acutely self-conscious about his limited schooling, he was driven by an insatiable desire to expand his intellectual horizons. His rebellious streak emanated, in part, from his social unease at coming from a lower-middle-class background. His sympathies naturally lay with the working-class poor, rather than the bourgeoisie, in whose presence he never felt entirely comfortable. This resentment can partly be attributed to his disgust at the moral hypocrisy of his own parents’ bourgeois pretensions. Nothing was more galling to Céline than phoniness and ‘keeping up appearances’. Time and again, his novels deploy his exceptional powers of observation to peel away the multiple layers of man’s duplicity and self-righteousness.
 

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