The Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline
These letters are excerpted from The Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, additional letters from this manuscript will be featured through the Summer and Fall in the Brooklyn Rail.
Céline and the Lost Cause of Anti-Semitism
Philippe Sollers, the French novelist and critic, said on an episode of the French literary television show “La Grande Librairie” dedicated to the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline that Céline and Voltaire were the two greatest authors of correspondence in French literature. Leaving aside his omission of Flaubert, his observation is an interesting one, for reading the two men’s correspondence highlights important elements of their personalities.
The genius of reading correspondence is that it reveals the real person. What is written for publication is written with just that in mind, with the knowledge that you will be judged as a writer and as a person. Correspondence is conversation, more often than not with a friend, and so the writer is more likely to reveal his true nature, or at least does so more freely than in published writings.
And so in the dozens of volumes of Voltaire’s correspondence we have, alongside the noble defender of free-thought and the victims of religious viciousness, the toadying sycophant who wrote countless unctuous and fawning letters to the royals who admired him and who he admired, primarily Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. The question of his sincerity in these letters can be posed, since there are rules in corresponding with royals that don’t pertain when writing to the common run of mortals, but if they are not sincere (and we have no reason to believe they weren’t) then they are evidence of a hypocrisy that taints our image of Voltaire.
Céline’s correspondence thus serves as a formal refutation of the assertion made by many that the extremity of Céline’s polemical anti-Semitic writings is so unmeasured that it constitutes a critique or a parody of anti-Semitism, and thus attenuates Céline’s guilt in this regard. As this selection of letters attests, Céline’s anti-Semitism, far from being a form of hallucinatory madness, a satirical reductio ad absurdum of Jew-hatred, constituted the core of his world-view. It could be possible (though not likely) that the rants that constitute his three anti-Semitic pamphlets, Bagatelles pour un Massacre, L’école des Cadavres, and Les Beaux Draps were nothing but showing-off, a stretching of his language to its farthest points. But when read alongside his correspondence and their inexhaustible racism, it becomes no longer open to question: Céline was both one of the handful of great French writers, and he was also peerless in his moral degradation and Jew-hatred.
The three pamphlets (this is Céline’s description of them, though they are all full-length books) have never been translated into English, and in book form are only publicly available in French only in Canada. This is not because they are banned, but because Céline’s widow, his copyright holder, refuses to allow their republication. In Canada (as in New Zealand) Céline is now in the public domain, allowing the publication of these central pieces of his oeuvre, the pamphlets and the correspondence, without which his work and life and weltanschauung cannot be fully understood.
The obsessive, the nearly lunatic nature of his Jew-hatred is clear throughout these letters. We find him believing that the Pope is a Jew; that in the midst of the attempted extermination of French Jewry, when they have been all but cut out of public life, “all of French public opinion is philo-Semitic.” And when a Breton sailor is executed by the Germans for having bragged of committing sabotage Céline, who had campaigned to save the sailor’s life, insists that, “There is no doubt that if this unfortunate had been a Jew he would have come out fine.” When Hitler’s anti-Semitic measures in Germany have begun to enter into effect he finds these laws to be something from which advantages can be drawn: “Since the Jews have been driven out of Germany there must be room for the other intellectuals.” Jewish power is immense: “In the end the Jews will emerge victorious everywhere,” he wrote in 1937. Their power even extends to literary criticism: “Soviet Masonic Jewish clique in power in your country couldn’t but drool the way they did,” he wrote in response to Czech criticism of Death on the Installment Plan.
And his anti-Jewish madness didn’t end with the war. He described the need to act “like a Jew” in order to hold onto his post-war Danish asylum. And Céline’s sense of himself as a martyr, and at the same time of his power was so mad that he write to his lawyer in 1947 that, “I am the only anti-Semite hunted down for his anti-Semitism who could currently be truly useful to the Jews… The latter are far from popular; they’re hated as much if not more than before Hitler… more or less everywhere”
What was the source of Céline’s Jew-hatred? Revolutionary as Céline’s style was, there is a phrase in a letter to the great art critic élie Faure that helps us find an answer and that also situates Céline for us socially and politically. He wrote to Faure, member of a prestigious family that included, on his mother’s side, the elite of French anarchism, the Reclus brothers, that “You didn’t earn your bread before going to school. You have no right to judge me, you don’t know. You don’t know everything I know. You don’t know what I want, you don’t know what I do. You have no idea of the horrible effort I have to make every day and especially every night just to keep upright, to hold my pen.” The attitude Céline expresses here is nothing but the ressentiment of the petit-bourgeois, of the shopkeeper who, always keeping an eye on any perceived advantages that go to others, has to slave away as he sees others get ahead of him or have the good fortune to be born into better circumstances. And Céline was, indeed, of this milieu, his mother running a lace shop and his father an office worker. He imbibed from his parents, from the world he grew up in, their world view, one dominated by fear of falling into the lower classes and hatred of those - not least among them the Jews - who have achieved success. Céline’s parents were anti-Dreyfusard and he grew up in an anti-Semitic household. That he took it to frenzied extremes, and that he himself entered the world of the arts (while still maintaining a foothold in the workaday world as a doctor) changes nothing in the fact that his is essentially a petit-bourgeois view of the world, and that everything about Celine reeks of the selfishness and fear of his parents’ world, which he so vividly depicted in Death on the Installment Plan. His hatred of the Jews was far from uncommon; his insistence on their omnipotence was far from uncommon: he was the petit-bourgeois as literary genius, and this is one of the paradoxes of his work.
There is another paradox in his oeuvre. As obsessed as he was about Jews in his pamphlets and correspondence and political activity, Jews make almost no appearance in his fiction, and with the exception of his minor work L’église (The Church) there’s hardly a trace of any anti-Semitism in his literary work. How can this be explained? Jew-hatred has often appeared in fiction, even in great fiction (see Dostoevsky), so why does this not occur in Céline’s work?
The great social and literary critic Philippe Muray views this question in a fertile and provocative way. For Muray the novels and pamphlets are one, and what we find in Celine’s work is the work of a physician: the novels, with their vision of a sick, atomized world, are descriptions of an illness. The pamphlets, and Celine’s anti-Semitism in general, are the diagnosis and the cure: In the novels we are presented “the human violence and wickedness at the basis of every society.” They deny any possibility of solidarity, there being nothing connecting one person to another. But in its exclusion of the Jew, anti-Semitism serves as a basis for common action by the rest of society: “The other [works are]…comforting for the collectivity, denounc[ing] a certain category of human beings as responsible for the rotting of social ties.” And Muray sums up the role of Celine’s anti-Semitism in a brilliant and lapidary phrase; “”Anti-Semitism is not the interchangeable name for his terror, but on the contrary what he found to suppress or ‘cure’ it.” In the end, as for the Nazis, the Jews are a microbe of which the (social) body must be cleansed. Dr. Destouches and Céline complement and complete each other.
Writers and critics have concentrated on Céline the Jew-hater, which has masked another, equally disturbing side to him: Céline also followed the petite-bourgeoisie down another path, and as we can see in these letters, was also a fascist.
There is, of course, no reason to think that Celine’s Jew-hatred would necessarily lead him to fascism, or even necessarily to the right politically. He was favorably viewed by the left after the publication of Journey to the End of the Night, was translated into Russian by Elsa Triolet, wife of the Communist poet Louis Aragon, and paid for a voyage to the USSR with royalties from that book. The left is no stranger to anti-Semitism, and even on the right anti-Semitism was the province of conservatives and royalists, as well as fascists.
His attraction to fascism was made obvious before the war. The first of his pamphlets was the anti-communist screed Mea Culpa (1936), written after his trip to the USSR, and though anti-communism doesn’t necessarily lead to either Jew-hatred or fascism, this book was the first step along the way.
That Céline was at the very least a fellow-traveler of fascism is proved by the fact that when he paid a visit to Canada in 1938 he attended a meeting of Adrien Arcand’s fascist party, the Parti National Socialiste Chrétien, a meeting at which he was photographed among the fascist-unformed crowd. Interviewed by the movement’s newspaper, Le fasciste canadien he spoke of the situation in North America, where “the same forces that tore apart and bloodied Spain work at a redoubled rhythm on this continent, where they are more advanced than they were in Spain two years ago.” And he went further, saying of Arcand and his fascists that “You are the sole hope, along with your chief, who so impressed me, and your mighty cadres, whose equivalent can’t be found in France today. If you fail in your task your country is fucked.”
Two years later, with France defeated and occupied, the most controversial period of Celine’s life would begin, one covered extensively in the selections in this volume.
Céline would maintain after the war that he never wrote for any Collaborationist newspapers, and, strictly speaking, that was the case. Unlike other fascist writers like Robert Brasillach, Lucien Rebatet, and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, his byline never appeared in the pro-German press. Instead, Céline wrote to the pro-Nazi press, and his letters, along with frequent interviews, constituted his main contribution to Collaborationism. Never having been part of the staff of any of the papers, he could claim he was free of their taint and was never paid by the Germans or the Vichy government, though the letters he wrote were in perfect consonance with their ideas and were intended to encourage Collaborationists and the Occupiers in their efforts to crush the Jews and the Communists. The German and Collaborationist failure to (totally) succeed in this would lead Céline to complain the rest of his life that he was the victim of an unwarranted campaign against him by these two groups.
Celine was not a joiner, and given the overall lack of a coordinated fascist grouping during the war, the fact that he was not a member of any of the groups hardly comes as a surprise. But that he was a supporter of the most extreme elements of the Collaboration, and wanted to assist in the forming of a unified fascist party is made clear in the letter to Jacques Doriot dated February 7, 1942.
Doriot had once been the great hope of the French Communist Party, but when he was expelled from the party in 1934 he rapidly moved to fascism, founding and leading the largest fascist grouping in France, the Parti Populaire Français. During the war he was a key figure in the Légion de Volontaires Français Contre le Bolchevisme (LVFB – Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism), and as such fought with the Germans against the Red Army on the Eastern Front, and was even photographed wearing a German uniform.
In the letter to Doriot, written after Celine had attended an LVFB rally at which he and his wife had been photographed, he talks about how he hopes “your victory in the East overturns the course of events.” But the bulk of the letter is about the need for, and lack of, a unified pro-German, fascist political party, the harm this is causing, and how the Collaborationists are refusing to confront the fact that they are “assholes” for refusing to talk about the Jews. In fact, these “verbal” anti-Semites for Celine are “worse than the Jews.” Because the Collaborationists are disunited, because they aren’t sufficiently anti-Semitic “the cause is lost,” and this is what the French, “so rotten, so hopeless, so stupid,” deserve.
All of this is of a piece with his pamphlets, in which it is French weakness, caused by Jewish and Masonic rot, and which the French are too drunk to combat, that is the source of France’s ills.
That, and the refusal to listen to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, though the latter is caused by the former.
The letters, then provide us the portrait of the writer as moral and intellectual monster, as moral and intellectual coward. His Danish lawyer, Thorvald Mikkelsen, described him as “a coward who thought only of himself and who played at the martyr as soon as his own skin was in question.” But they are also, stylistically, of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre. Céline remains an artistic revolutionary in the letters, privately expressing the most odious ideas in precisely the same style as in his novels and pamphlets. The same elliptical, hysterical, exaggerated stretching of the capabilities of language appear here as they do there. They are of enormous artistic value, and this is where Sollers is right in his praise of them.
Along with Celine the anti-Semite, in the letters we see the young boy sent to Germany by his loving parents to improve himself, the World War I poilu, the African commercial agent, the League of Nations employee, the doctor, the novelist aspiring to France’s highest literary award, the man who knew women better than they did themselves and so could give advice on how they should live, the prisoner, the former Collaborator living out his days as a doctor and writer on the outskirts of Paris…
For Céline the entire world was leagued against him, and in the post-war years it was not only the Jews, Communists, and government that were against him. His lengthiest war in his final years was with his enemy, the publisher. Perhaps the most entertaining of his letters, entertaining because the stakes were relatively low, is his correspondence with his publisher Gaston Gallimard.
The most prestigious of publishing houses, Gallimard had taken on the author, and the house’s president, Gaston, as well as the house’s most important editors, spent years being bombarded by Celine with complaints that his books weren’t being distributed as they should, that he was being cheated on royalties, that he wasn’t being treated as well as other writers handled by the publisher.
Gallimard was the last of Celine’s many enemies (though in this case there does, indeed seem to be affection and an air of parody in his incessant complaints). It’s no surprise that Celine died fighting for the last penny he felt was owed him, his last writing being a letter to his publisher threatening “to rent a tractor and smash in the NRF.” He died as he lived, a petit-bourgeois in a state of rage.
To His Parents
(In late August 1907, in order to expand his horizons and help him learn a foreign language, Céline was sent by his parents for a one-year stay in the town of Diepholz, Germany. He lived with the Schmidt family, the head of which was the director of the school he attended. This is the first letter of his that we have.)
Diepholz, August 30, 1907
After having mailed your postcard (at around 6:00) we went to the café we’d gone to Thursday morning, it belongs to [name left blank with a question mark] the cousin of Mme Schmidt, in this way they offered me (for free) a promenade on the Hunte1] with the children, I’m beginning to understand how to handle the perch, and then we went back home where I received a card for Papa that I am sending you in this letter, a little later after having eaten I received Qui lit rit2 and this made me very happy, so I’m going to write a card to Uncle Louis. We went to bed at 9:30 and after having spent my first in exile this morning I received a postcard from Uncle Charles who tells me that he’ll send me a letter soon. I’m going to answer him, but should I write a letter or a postcard? I took my syrup, I went to the bathroom and I saw a lock on my door I hadn’t noticed before. Then I went to school, I was taken to my classroom where I found myself with a terrific teacher but students who were much less so, as you’ll see in what follows – the class was about to end and the students had already left (at 10:30 since there were only two lessons) when M. Schmidt told me to leave with Hilde and Anna. He accompanied as far as the small street but as soon as he left me the little bochs [sic] followed me saying, “du, es franςais,” this was pretty funny, but they were shouting too loudly, and so I went to speak to M. Schmidt who told me that from now on I would always leave school with him. I forgot to tell you that this morning I saw my piano teacher, he is young and very nice. Then we went swimming with Werner who didn’t take to it very well. We met with several teachers, they thought I swam well and they learned some strokes from me, then we went back and I’m writing you during the siesta. I’m beginning to know each of their personalities. M. Schmidt is very nice and always even-tempered, Mme Schmidt is very moody, sometimes gay and outgoing, other days calm and closed.
Finally, to end my letter I recommend you not worry about my lot, I am as happy as it’s possible to be, nevertheless I will be very happy to see Maman if she can in November and Papa at Christmastime.
This evening I received a card from you from Cologne.3
Your son who embraces you. Write me as much as you can.
PS if you can, send me my dictionary. At the last minute I saw that I could put in the envelope to you my Uncle Charles’ postcard.
- The river that passes through Diepholz.
- One of the many French publications his parents sent him from France.
- Céline’s parents sent him a postcard from every saying they stopped at between Diepholz and Paris.
To His Father from Bikobimbo
(After being mustered out of the army because of his war wound, after working at the French consulate in London in 1916 Céline signed a contract with a French company and went to work in Cameroon, where he remained for ten months.)
29 September 1916
I read in the old newspapers that you’ve been invaded by mosquitoes, this doesn’t surprise me when we compare the hygiene we see in the colonies in their regard and the casualness with which they’re treated in France –
Nevertheless, Africa, and especially Equatorial Africa, is infested with them – There’s an English book by a doctor with the title Mosquito or Man by Boyce – the title tells it all – About mosquitoes, there’s an old, slightly exaggerated story of Belgian origin –
It is said there was in Brazzaville (a city known for its abundance of mosquitoes) a colonist so put out by the latter that he took refuge in a disassembled rubber boiler he found on the Congo River –
He settled himself in it as best he could, but the enraged mosquitoes made such an infernal racket outside it that he took a hammer and banged and banged – he banged so much that the next day he found himself in Matadi – 800 kilometers from the coast, capital of the Belgian Congo. – There were so many mosquitoes that the flapping of their wings had made the boiler travel upstream on the Congo…Including the colonist, a traveler despite himself –
Take this as you will.
L des T1
- For a brief while Céline affected spelling his last name des Touches, giving it the air of a noble name.
To Blanchette Fermon1
[…]Blanchette, you still have a few more years to make your fortune. […] One must live on beautiful memories and pretty them up if they’re not perfect… But time flies… Leave the splitting of hairs to others, to idlers or the too-wealthy. You, Blanchette, who’ve wasted too much time, must be firmly determined not to waste another second… Get on your horse and, lance in hand, conquer all there is of poetic and fruitful desire in man!... Complain?.... What’s the use? Nothing is ever entirely our fault – but neither are we guilty of the sadness that mounts within us and with each passing day replaces the wish to die, and then every evening formulates itself more precisely in our hearts. – life is a melancholy farce, believe you me. A sinister farce, if we abandon the few flowers we might have plucked in the gardens of youth. I am desperately faithful to them – since leaving them would kill me – this explains my incessant voyages, my vagabond, inexplicable life… No more time to waste on experiments: to work! On to adventure!... Leave your heart in peace. You don’t know how to use it… One creates with joy […] Write me at 6, quai Richemont – without yelling at me, without sadness, with courage, with spirit, an amiable sale2, but, amiable Blanchette, without bitterness – one creates in joy and not otherwise.
- Fermon was either a friend or mistress of Céline.
- The sense of this in the original is obscure.
You have to find something so you can be independent in Paris. As for me, I can’t possibly live with anyone – I don’t want to drag you behind me crying and miserable, you bore me, that’s all there is to it – don’t hang on to me. I’d rather kill myself than live with you all the time – know this and don’t bother me anymore with attachment, tenderness – instead, arrange your life as you please. I want to be alone, alone, alone, neither dominated nor under anyone’s tutelage, nor loved: free. I detest marriage, I abhor it, I spit on it. For me it’s like a prison where I’m dying.
- Céline’s first wife.
Dr. Ludwig Rajchman1
(In 1924, having passed his exams and become a physician, Céline was hired by the hygiene section of the League of Nations, for which he traveled extensively, including trips to the US, England, Holland (the subject of this letter), and Africa, travels he incorporated in Journey to the End of the Night.)
Sunday June 23, 1925
Dear Director and Friend:
We’ve arrived here and the group was immediately sent off to Marken Island for an excursion. The intention was good, but come on! It wasn’t on the program. The quite normal programs that are sent to Geneva are regularly changed; things are always added and it’s really annoying…
The exchange doctors are getting used to Europe, but I can sense a great, hidden surprise in them. It’s not so much the matter that amazes them, it’s the more contemplative ambience than the one they have at home. People who I know to be so talkative are almost contemplative.
More on the United States…
Here (in Europe) the influence of women on American affairs is much discussed.
I particularly see this in the field of public education, where nine out of ten teachers are women. It can be said that primary education in the United States is done by women. The schools being mixed I am speaking of grammar schools and most high schools.2 I think that this contributes to Americans being given the preconceived notion that women are superior: after all, they’re used to hearing them give lessons from the time they’re children. American women, all American women in fact, constantly, in every circumstance, give lessons: they’re born schoolteachers. In practice they produce entire generations of “good boys” [in English in the original] infinitely respectful of all that is feminine, and this is quite praiseworthy, though the intellectual results seem to me to be disastrous, disastrous! Woman is moral and maternal, and pretty, and also almost never critical and profound. From which results, to a large extent, the crushing dullness of American thought. This disastrous fatuity, this intellectual vulgarity, I say intellectual (not spiritual) in a people who would so need the finesse and speculative boldness that lays the groundwork for modesty, that most divine flower, and one which is completely unknown in the gardens of America.
M. Jitta yesterday described the results obtained by the cancer commission. Among other things, he told us that in order to discover the etiology of the greater frequency of cancer in England than in Holland an explanation was being sought in diets (meat, perhaps).
I wonder if it would be possible to find material for study among veterinarians in these two countries. I knew that female cats, for example, in France at least, often have epitheliomas of the mammaries.
Perhaps the veterinarians of England and Holland know something about this? And in that case, the role of meat would be limited, since giblets are present in only a few types of meat. And perhaps there are other forms of neoplasm “investigatable” in other animals.
I didn’t mention this idea to M. Jitta since I’m afraid it’s fundamentally idiotic. I leave it to you to judge
- Céline’s hierarchical superior when he worked for the League of Nations.
- In English in the original.
To Henri Mahé1
[late August 1931]
I’ll come see you with Margaret Severn on Thursday at 2:30 – 3:00 on the barge. She is delighted and would love nothing more than to pose, but you’re both great artists and I leave it to the two of you to work out the hours. Wait till you see this three-master,2 old friend! She’s the real thing! She speaks hardly any French, but she’s enormously sensitive, so you can talk to her in the language of breezes and zephyrs, but wait till you see her ass and thighs, my friend. You could jerk off to them for twenty years…
Turn Elizabeth around and let’s not talk about it. No sympathy. That great star doesn’t appreciate little dancers. 3
- One of Céline’s closest friends, Mahé was a painter who specialized in painting circuses and bordellos. He lived on a barge on the Seine.
- Céline was fond of nautical terms in describing women. A Three-master was the highest category.
- In all likelihood this refers to a portrait of Elizabeth Craig that Céline suggests he turns to the wall for his visitor.
To the Gallimard Publishing House
I have just completed a work, a kind of novel, whose writing took me several years. It seems to me that this is the worst possible moment to be published, even as a vanity project… nevertheless, I would be grateful if you would let me know if by any chance my manuscript could be read!...
I one brought you a manuscript, L’église [The Church], which you returned asking that I submit something else…
Being extremely busy all day, could you write me where I should leave my manuscript so that I waste the least time possible. Of course, only if you think the reading of this manuscript wouldn’t be totally pointless.
Please accept my sincerest regards
Dr. Louis Destouches
To Robert Denoël1
Please, don’t under any circumstances add even one syllable to my text without notifying me! You’ll destroy the rhythm - I alone can find the place for it. I look like a driveling idiot but I know perfectly well what I want. Not one syllable. Pay attention to the cover, too. No music hall-ism. No typographic sentimentalism. The classical.
Keep in mind that all of you are in your romantic period with this book. For my part I’ve digested it and I’m ready to vomit it up. You for your part can’t yet see it from the angle of taste. You have to have eaten your fill of it for that. That’s my case. A serious and discreet cover. That’s my opinion. Bistre and black or gray and gray perhaps and letters the same size and a little thick. That’s all. As far as Impressionism goes, that’ll suffice.
See you soon.
- Céline’s original French publisher.
To Erika Irrgang
October 3, 1932
My Dear Little One:
I had just written to you in Breslau when I received your letter from Heisse. I see that you continue to hold your own and this is a good thing. I of course know many people, but you’re one of those I prefer I suppose because of all the things we have in common. Only you’re younger (fortunately!) and you’ll go further – if you hold to your line of conduct like a Jewess. Tenaciously, instinctively, by all possible means. You’re charming, you’re dirty-minded when you want to be – Preserve your health – your thighs, your wit – Make your primary goal leaving poverty behind– Don’t amuse yourself with little men who serve no purpose – don’t chatter needlessly. Make love (AVOIDING RISK) because it’s stimulating, and reserve your intelligence for your material success – you can think of other things once you’ve reached a certain level of security. Engage in sports, it’s easy in Germany.
I’ll be at your place in November, but give me your address and you’ll go with me for a few days to Breslau – then you’ll come see me in Paris – You’ll receive the book at the end of the week.
To Lucien Descaves1
31 October 1932
You have perhaps had the goodness to glance at my book Journey to the End of the Night, which I present for your suffrage for this year’s Goncourt Prize. I was wondering if you would find it agreeable or useful to meet the author, and in that case I would have the honor to present myself to you when you want, where you want. I am a doctor in a municipal dispensary, my profession after twenty others, born in 1894 in Courbevoie Seine - decorated, slightly disabled – 38 years old –
Please accept the assurance of my highest consideration.
- Writer of anarchist tendencies and a member of the Goncourt jury, which was considering Journey to the End of the Night.
To John Marks1
[February] 24, 
I thank you and am touched by the understanding and kind terms of your letter, and I am certain you are going to accomplish this tour de force with a verve and an authority that will leave its mark.
I don’t have the book before me but “je crois qu’il est fadé, etc” in this case means “He has [got-crossed out in the original letter] received a damn good dose…of cochonnerie as far as he is concerned”… etc.
Il est fadé means he has plenty of it …
I read your translation. I find all of it quite good, except the last two pages, which in my opinion drag a bit and are limp. I think they would gain by being translated more vigorously. Try to keep to the dancing rhythm of the text. Don’t let the momentum falter, not that I want you to engage in [journalism – crossed out] “peppy style” [in English in the original] but rather to prune in English what is no longer life, but rather death. One must always watch out for transforming life into deader than death. [Which- crossed out] The pitfall of almost every so-called work of art. Pay close attention. I underlined in pencil the dialogue that struck me as limp, pointlessly long. Don’t hesitate to shorten it by one or two words to make it livelier, I don’t mean jazzy, I mean “lively” in English. Of course, I don’t allow myself, and with reason, to suggest anything precise, but don’t forget that the book modifies and modulates from one chapter to the next; it surprises and should surprise the reader by its rhythm from one page to another. It is all dance and music. Always on the edge of death without falling into it. When you finish a chapter rest a bit. The following one, while remaining within the general tone, will require some new adaptations.
I speak to you familiarly in making these remarks, and forgive me for being so cavalier. These remarks are technical and not personal.
All of this makes me think that I owe you much gratitude for the crushing labor of which I am the cause.
Hope to read you soon.
- Marks was Céline’s English language translator.
To Erika Irrgang1
27 June 1933
I thought I’d stop in Berlin on the way back from Prague (where the Czech edition of Journey has just come out) but I didn’t have the time! Here I am back in Paris until August 1. Don’t you want to come to Paris? I’m happy to know you’re handling things in Berlin. My book is a selling well. The German translation isn’t ready yet. Delayed because of events you know well!2 Things aren’t going very well here, wither.
Since the Jews have been driven out of Germany there must be room for the other intellectuals.
Heil Hitler! Take advantage of this!
What’s become of your friend? Doesn’t he, too, have to find something?
Do you still take such lovely photos? In October I’m going to stay on the outskirts of Paris, in St. Germain, because of the air and also the gas of the next war! I’m going to spend August in Dinard (Britanny).
- A German woman Céline met and befriended in 1932
- Reference to the anti-Jewish measure put in place by Hitler after being greeting full power in March 1933
Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) was one of the great innovators of twentieth century French literature. His first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, completely changed the literary landscape when it appeared in 1932, praised by the critics and Leon Trotsky alike. After the relative failure of his second novel, Death on the Installment Plan (1936) he then turned to political pamphlets, first attacking the Soviet Union in Mea Culpa in 1936, and then writing three horrifically anti-Semitic pamphlets, which have tarnished his reputation ever since. Though he denied collaborating with the Nazis or ever writing for the Collaborationist press, he in fact supported them wholly, and though he never wrote articles for Collaborationist journals he instead wrote letters to them or allowed himself to be interviewed by them. As the Vichy regime collapsed he followed its members to Germany, and his observations of their collapse served as the source for his great late trilogy: North, Castle to Castle, and Rigodon. Imprisoned in Denmark after the war, he later returned to France, where he died in Meudon in the Paris suburbs, his last years spent complaining of the threat posed by a Chinese invasion.Mitch Abidor
MITCHELL ABIDOR is the principal French translator for the Marxists Internet Archive where a version of this translation first appeared. His books include, The Great Anger: Ultra-Revolutionary Writing in France From the Atheist Priest to the Bonnot Gang, Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told By Those Who Fought For It, the collection of Victor Serge’s writings on anarchism, Anarchists Never Surrender, selections from Jean Jaures’, Socialist History of the French Revolution, The Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the poetry of Benjamin Fondane and Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff.