Myths and microbes

The Life of Celine: A Critical Biography

Nicholas Hewitt <em>Blackwell, 360pp, £45</em>

ISBN 063

A great many incongruous images of Celine remain with one after reading this biography. For example, it is hard to envisage the young urban nihilist touring Brittany schools with the Rockefeller Mission Against Tuberculosis in 1918 and singing, "Va-t-en, va-t-en microbe!" to the tune of "Il pleut, il pleut bergere". But he did. Celine was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinarily vivid life, and this book can be as paradoxical and irritating as its subject. Hewitt's prose is sometimes pedestrian and frustrating; at other times he succeeds brilliantly.

Hewitt is dedicated to banishing what he terms Celine's "mythomania". (Its existence is well known - as Robert Poulet said of Celine: "He lied a lot, convinced that he owed nothing to anyone, not even the truth.") Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, later Celine, was born in 1894 to a petit bourgeois family near Paris and educated in England and Germany. Later he was to greatly exaggerate the poverty of his background: "I am from the people, the real people." He was, as the myth has it, injured in the Great War, but he was not trepanned nor did he have a metal plate implanted in his head. An ambitious autodidact, Celine advanced by using influence and short cuts. He took an abbreviated, two-and-a-half-year medical degree designed for veterans and joined the League of Nations in Geneva in 1924, working in the Hygiene Section.

Nor later was he quite the devoted medecin des pauvres that he liked to suggest. Admittedly he spent some not-so-quiet days in Clichy and other parts of Paris practising as a doctor, but his focus was really the completion of his first great novel, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, published in 1932. It made him an instant, relatively wealthy celebrity; he practised medicine again only sporadically.

Although Hewitt points, quite correctly, to psychoanalytic studies of Celine and his work (by Nicole Debrie, Willy Szafran, Charles Maurron, Deleuze and Guattari), he himself, with his constant debunking of Celine's hyperbole, seems to have little understanding of the creative psyche. Any great writer must be capable of mythologising their experiences. Celine just took it to extremes, as he did everything. Indeed at the end of his life he finally coincided with his myth, as the madman of Meudon, a toothless, shabby, paranoid recluse, shut away with innumerable cats and dogs and a parrot (and his wife).

There are some consistencies in Celine's perverse and contradictory character. He was avaricious. "Money dominated him - a real sickness," said one mistress. He was a hypochondriac and fanatical about infection. He utilised this latter preoccupation, as did others, in his increasingly anti-Semitic views, referring to "microbes" to be attacked in his infamous pamphlet Bagatelles pour un Massacre in 1937. Hewitt raises all the difficulties associated with this pamphlet - its ambiguities and deliberate mistakes. Is it supposed to be satirical, comic, a polemical linguistic game, a form of la blague? Obviously not entirely. Celine was a notable collaborator who worked for the Nazis in Germany, endured postwar exile in Denmark, was tried for these crimes and granted an amnesty, largely because of his rather dubious "70 per cent invalidity", including first world war wounds. Yet there are stories of Celine's medical kindnesses to Resistance fighters, and he denounced his own racist stance - although it is unkindly said that he reneged only when it became clear Germany would lose the war. Sincerity, expediency? With Celine, one never knows.

It is probable that Celine's politics were drawn from within the miasma of fear, pacifism, misanthropy, rage and nihilism that constituted his authorial persona. Writers like Celine, Pound and Kipling are drawn to politics for non-political reasons, for reasons of politics as myth and symbol, politics as the vehicle for rhetoric and the expression of grandiose ideas in language. This does not absolve them, but they are not like politicians.

Hewitt's book is part of a series of Blackwell critical biographies that attempt to locate a writer in his cultural and historical milieu. Thus there is an immense weight of history, politics and social studies here, as well as literary criticism. Hewitt's real achievement lies in proving that Celine's two great novels are not works of realism and, indeed, are much less autobiographical than has been assumed. This is really a very thorough academic text-book. But, being overburdened with data, it lacks atmosphere, mood, poetry, description and humour.

Any pleasure beyond that of research in this biography comes from the occasional quotation. Here an eyewitness describes Celine's arrival in Sigmaringen in 1944: "Filthy and ragged, a pair of moth-eaten mittens hanging from his neck and . . . in a haversack on his belly, Bebert the cat, presenting the phlegmatic face of a native Parisian who's seen it all before . . . 'That's the great fascist writer, the brilliant prophet?' I was speechless myself."

This article first appeared in the 23 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, No Jews on their golf courses