Louis-Ferdinand Celine was the notorious French writer with a dark and shady association with the Vichy regime. In 1944 he fled to Germany leaving behind a collection of correspondence, subsequently seized by the French resistance. None of this was ever made public until August 2021 when a left-wing journalist published Celine`s “lost” papers, which also included an unfinished manuscript of a novel.
Jean-Pierre Thibaudat was the journalist responsible for the release. Thibaudat, who writes for Liberation magazine was handed the papers in 2006, but only decided to print them after the death of Celine`s widow. However the Celine estate took legal action against him, accusing him of receiving stolen goods. The French people, once again have been forced to confront one of the most sensitive aspects to their nation’s history and the role that their most esteemed literary figures played during that time.
Celine`s 1932 novel, “Journey to the End of the Night” was a masterpiece, and it was awarded the Prix Renaudot, a top French literary prize. It was based on the author’s experience of World War One and it is a brilliant evocation of the futility and waste associated with that conflict. The prose is spare and bleak, revealing the deep seated misanthropy of the narrator and by implication, the author.
Celine`s World War Two associations seem incongruous in the light of his previous experience fighting the Germans. As the letters have proven, he was a collaborator with the Nazis and shared their extreme philosophy, including a distasteful antipathy of Jewish people. Nonetheless his morbid, nihilistic fiction filled with antiheroes is unsurpassed.
A distinction really needs to be drawn between Celine and the other major literary figure associated with Vichy France, Charles Maurras. While Maurras was motivated by a genuine fear of Soviet influence and the necessity to maintain the French nation, Celine truly believed in Hitler`s notions of cleansing humanity by eliminating the “undesirable” elements within it.
Hitler had distorted European history and folklore to promote his prophecy and it is important to point this out. Maurras felt a real nostalgia for pre-revolutionary France, especially its Catholic heritage and his writings reveal a profound sense of affection for a distinct French culture. Maurras romanticised France, Celine only sought to destroy it.
The Celine papers are vital historical documents. It is really important that all of the conversations surrounding right and left wing politics should be aired.