Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 1, 1994

Céline: A Biography, by Frédéric Vitoux. Translated by Jesse Browner. Paragon House, 1992. 601 pp. $34.95.

In his “Preface” to his New Directions translation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan, Ralph Manheim notes that Céline’s “blackness is further intensified by his literary attitudes and by the literary personality he composed for himself. He believed that literature had sidestepped man’s baseness as he knew it, that writers had resolutely embellished man, that his experience was the truth, which it was his mission to tell. His purpose in writing, he once said, was to blacken himself and others; we should all be freer if the whole truth about human ‘crumminess’ were finally told.”

Céline was never able to renounce anything, and his life would seem a strategic entry on those ledger sheets accounting the balance of the years between World War I and World War II. He lived as a man torn asunder, a tormented person of opposite tendencies whose torment became necessary lest an aesthetic weakness override his literary art, which it very largely does not. He is a major writer to whom Genet, Joyce, Burroughs, Grass, Mailer, Roth, and Vonnegut openly acknowledge debt. He is obsessed with the demonic in various mixtures; he is little concerned with the angelic or with a moral equilibrium he would have renounced as superficialized humanism. If the existentialists, Dostoevsky, Mann, Kierkegaard, propose moral claims and moral unity, Céline’s vision is destructive of moral claims and moral unity. He knows neither shrinking nor half-heartedness but ruthlessly imposes his unembellished man into the midst of twentieth-century history.

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