Journey to the end of Céline’s long lost manuscripts

Missing for years, treasure trove of French writer’s unpublished work will see light of day

June 17th, 1944. Following the Allied landing in Normandy, the liberation of Paris appears imminent. Members of the Resistance are putting miniature coffins – death threats – in the mailbox of the novelist and medical doctor Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known by his pen name, Céline. His wife, the dancer Lucette Almansor, sews gold coins into the lining of Céline's jacket. He says goodbye to his friend, the actress Arletty, famous for her role in the film classic Children of Paradise and for taking a German lover. His secretary takes several manuscripts, but Céline is forced to abandon most of his writings.

Monsieur and Madame Destouches flee with their cat Bébert to the Gare de l'Est, en route for Germany. They are housed for a time with the collaborationist prime minister Marshal Philippe Pétain and his Vichy government in the castle at Sigmaringen. The couple travel on to Denmark, where Céline had buried a hoard of gold coins. The Danes throw him in prison for two years while they consider a French application for his extradition.

France convicts Céline of security offences in 1951, then give him amnesty on the grounds that he is a disabled veteran of the first World War. He and Lucette settle in Meudon, southwest of Paris. He signs an exclusive contract with the publisher Gallimard and resumes medical practice. Lucette gives dance lessons.

Until his death in 1961, Céline complained bitterly about the looting of his Montmartre apartment in the summer of 1944. “They left me nothing,” he wrote in 1957. “Not a handkerchief, not a chair, not one manuscript.” Céline’s biographers hunted in vain for the manuscripts, especially Cannon Fodder, the missing autobiographical link between Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Instalment Plan (1936) .

More than three-quarters of a century later, on August 6th this year, Le Monde newspaper published a three-page story entitled “The rediscovered treasures of Louis-Ferdinand Céline”. In the midst of the summer holidays, the news hit the French literary world like a bombshell.

6,000 pages

The Bibilothèque nationale de France (BNF) has authenticated close to 6,000 pages of Céline’s handwriting, many of them mildewed from storage in a cellar. Chapters remain clamped together with clothes pegs, as was Céline’s habit. Estimates of the value of the three unpublished novels in various stages of completion, novellas, rewrites of earlier novels, correspondence and personal papers range as high as tens of millions of euro.

It seems an incongruous fate for a writer who was long a pariah, for having published three virulently anti-Semitic tracts: Trifles for a Massacre (1937), Schools for Corpses (1938) and A Fine Mess (1941).

Eventually the brilliance of Céline's novels, which are said to be free of anti-Semitic rhetoric, overshadowed the shame associated with those three hateful publications. Céline came to be considered, with Marcel Proust, a giant of 20th-century French literature. "Two bodies of work lead into the idiom and sensibility of 20th-century narrative," wrote the late academic and literary critic George Steiner, "that of Céline and that of Proust."

Proust catalogued the emotions of French aristocrats and the grande bourgeoisie.  Céline sympathised with the wretched inhabitants of first World War battlefields and colonial Africa, assembly line workers, prostitutes and asylum inmates.

Academics shunned Céline until Frédéric Vitoux, then a doctoral student and now a member of the Académie française, decided to write his thesis on the outcast writer in 1968.

“I never got over the shock of reading Journey to the End of the Night at age 17,” Vitoux says. “It is extremely rare to read a book that changes the way you see the world. Journey to the End of the Night was an earthquake in my life. Sentences like, ‘The truth about life is death’ or ‘Love is the infinite put within grasp of poodle dogs’.”

‘Violent style’

Céline summed up the cruelty of Manhattan in Journey to the End of the Night: “And the bigger the city and the higher it is and the more they don’t give a damn.”

Vitoux says Céline’s prose “smacked me in the face: his obsession with death, his harsh, violent style, using vernacular expressions and slang, but also knowledge and a refined choice of words. It made me see the world in a tragic way, as never before. I didn’t think anyone could write like that.”

The discovery of Céline’s lost manuscripts has reopened the fractures of the second World War, and fans the debate over the relevance of an artist’s life to his oeuvre. When France-Inter radio devoted its main morning news programme to the recovered manuscripts, an irate listener telephoned to express disgust. “Intellectual pleasure comes second for me . . . Céline was filth.”

Vitoux's 1988 Life of Céline won three major literary awards. He devoted hundreds of pages to Céline's anti-Semitism and cannot be accused of complacency. But, he argues, "If you started judging writers by whether they cheated on their wives, were misogynists, thieves or owned slaves, you would lose four-fifths of French literature . . . You couldn't look at Caravaggio's paintings because he was a murderer, or Gauguin's because he slept with underage Tahitian girls." Ezra Pound also wrote anti-Semitic texts. The poet Louis Aragon wrote odes to Stalin, who was responsible for some of the worst massacres of the 20th century.

“The importance of Céline in France is comparable to that of Joyce in the English-speaking world,” Vitoux says. “Both were innovators who shattered the confines of language.”

Medieval legend

Journey to the End of the Night recounts Céline’s life after the first World War. Death on the Instalment Plan revisits his unhappy childhood and adolescence. Most of Cannon Fodder, the third book in the trilogy, about Céline’s experience as a soldier in the first World War, was stolen in 1944.

The recovered trove contains 600 pages of the “missing link” novel. There is a separate 240-page text on the war, a 1,000-page novel entitled London, a medieval legend entitled The Will of King Krogold, reworked manuscripts of previous novels, personal correspondence and documentation which Céline used to produce his anti-Semitic tracts.

Céline accused Oscar Rosembly, a Corsican jack-of-all-trades who lived in Montmartre, of having stolen his papers. There are other theories, but most experts believe that Rosembly – who contrary to what Céline thought may not have been Jewish – looted Céline's apartment. Céline had employed Rosembly as an accountant because he believed the stereotype that Jews are skilled with money.

When Paris was liberated, Rosembly claimed to be a Resistance fighter, but he did so much looting that the Resistance imprisoned him. He led a colourful life and eventually retired to Corsica, where he was known for bathing nude in the village fountain. He took his secret to the grave in 1990.

Then about 15 years ago, someone gave the Céline papers to Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, a former Moscow correspondent and theatre critic for Libération newspaper. Thibaudat (a pen name) says he was chosen because, as a left-wing intellectual working for a left-wing newspaper and the son of members of the Resistance, he would not be suspected of complicity with the extreme right. Thibaudat says the anonymous donor made him promise not to reveal the manuscripts until Lucette Destouches died, because he did not want her to earn a single penny from their publication. She lived to be 107.

Stolen goods

Thibaudat spent much of the last 15 years cataloguing and transcribing the Céline manuscripts. When the first Covid lockdown ended in June 2020, he contacted Emmanuel Pierrat, a lawyer specialising in copyright law. Thibaudat and Pierrat met the beneficiaries of Lucette Destouches's will: her lawyer, François Gibault (89) and Véronique Chovin (69), a former dance student who became Lucette's closest friend in old age.

In September 2020, the heirs filed a lawsuit against Thibaudat for possession of stolen goods. When the second Covid lockdown ended in March of this year, Pierrat and Thibaudat took the documents, which fill three large carrier bags, to the OCBC, the French authority that fights trafficking in cultural property. The OCBC turned them over to Gibault and Chovin in July, before Le Monde revealed the story.

But a bitter legal and media battle continues. “There is no question of withdrawing our lawsuit,” Gibault told Libération. “Thibaudat presents himself and his lawyer as benefactors of French literature, whereas they refused to give us the manuscripts until he was summoned by police.” The journalist notes that he never asked for money.

The plaintiffs say Thibaudat deprived the world of the Céline manuscripts for more than 15 years and is now hiding the identity of the thief. “He says a journalist’s sources must be protected, but he is not protecting journalistic work, just theft,” says Jérémie Assous, lawyer to the heirs. “Does having a press card mean you can keep stolen property with impunity?”

Antoine Gallimard intends to continue his role as exclusive publisher of Céline's literary estate. Céline's work currently fills four volumes in Gallimard's prestigious, leather-bound Pléiade imprint. The rediscovered manuscripts mean they will have to be re-edited and expanded to five or six volumes.