PARIS (AFP) — Rarely is the story behind the publication of a book more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.
But that’s what you might say about ‘Guerre’ (War) by one of France’s most famous and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which hits bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years later. the disappearance of his manuscript.
Celine’s reputation somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazis.
Already a superstar thanks to her first novel “Voyage au bout de la nuit” (1932), Céline became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before the French occupation.
In June 1944, as the Allies advanced on Paris, the writer was forced to abandon a pile of his manuscripts in his apartment in Montmartre.
Celine expected rough treatment, having spent the war partying with the Gestapo, reporting Jews and foreigners to the authorities, and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish conspiracies around the world.
For decades no one knew what happened to his papers and he angrily accused the resistance fighters of burning them.
But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them on – completely out of the blue – to Céline’s heirs last summer.
Despite this disturbing story, critics of the resulting 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, are unanimous in their praise.
“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text”, writes Le Point; a “miracle”, says Le Monde; “Breathtaking,” raves Le Journal du Dimanche.
Gallimard has not yet specified whether there will be a translation.
Like much of Celine’s work, it is deeply autobiographical, recounting her terrible experiences during the First World War.
It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand, who miraculously finds himself alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real-life experiences.
His passage across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, “Londres” (London), to be published this autumn.
If French critics seem strangely reluctant to focus on Celine’s anti-Semitism, it’s partly because her early writings (“War” reportedly dates from 1934) show few signs of it.
“Journey to the End of the Night” was actually a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slangy style that lifted two fingers at bourgeois sensibilities.
Céline’s attitude towards the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, “Des trifles pour un massacre”, which launched him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy.
He never backed down. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust denial and sought to cover his own wartime exploits – allowing him to return to France without facing repercussions.
Many in the French literary scene seem eager to separate Celine sooner and later.
“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Céline to become a writer again: the one who counts, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.
Other critics say the first Celine was just hiding her true feelings.
They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and his reactionary sentiments: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a saleswoman, is the job of any writer who is very financially limited” , wrote Céline to a friend.
Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of the First World War and the malaise of the interwar period.
An exhibition on the discovery of the manuscripts opens Thursday at the Gallimard gallery and includes the original manuscript sheets of “War”.
They end with a typical Celine verse: “I took the war into my head. It’s locked in my head.
In the last years before her death in 1961, Céline constantly lamented the loss of her manuscripts.
The exhibit has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest vigilantes!”
It was an occasion – not the only one – where he turned out to be wrong.