In 2019, under murky circumstances, someone discovered thousands of pages of lost writings of the French author Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better known as Céline, who died in 1961. Among them is a previously unknown World War I novel, which has been published by the preeminent French publisher Gallimard under the title Guerre, to critical acclaim. David Pryce-Jones reviews the novel, and discusses some uncomfortable facts:
Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on Credit (1936) are the novels that have given Céline the status of master, and their disregard for the conventional rules in writing French is absolute. Playing fast and loose with grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and the use of the three dots of an ellipsis, taking whatever risks might serve his purpose and dispensing with anything like good manners towards the reader, he succeeded in destroying the classical language. One of the central props of civilization had been done away with.
The promotion of Guerre is silent about the three polemics Céline wrote between 1937 and 1941. Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres, and Les beaux draps are an inescapable feature of the time when Hitler was conquering Europe. Céline was now destroying conventional morality with the same eager fanatical spirit that motivated the working of his mind. He became the personification of the contempt that Nazis felt for the normal world. Gloating over the persecution and mass murder of Jews, he could write, “There is only one anti-Jewish force in this world, only one real pacifist force: the German army.”
Returning to France after the war, General de Gaulle was reluctant to punish French collaborators and said that poets ought not to be shot. . . . Once back home in Paris, Céline showed no remorse. His literary reputation has obscured the hatred he felt for humanity, a hatred so deep that it makes a virtue out of mass murder. Those 80,000 copies of Guerre are part of the discussion that has been going on since the country’s wartime collapse about what it means to be French. Unhappy is the nation that can still make a great man out of Céline.