The Life of Celine: A Critical Biography

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Louis-Ferdinand Celine was one of the foremost European writers of the twentieth century, the author of ten novels of undeniable stature and importance. Yet his life and work remain relatively unknown outside France, obscured by his reputation as a violent anti-semite during the 1930s and the Occupation, when he became a leading figure in collaborationist circles. Nicholas Hewitt's important new biography explores its controversial subject's life and work through the places and times in which he lived and in which he grounded his fiction. Celine was brought up in the old center of Paris during its last years, in the Belle Epoque, the only son of petit-bourgeois parents. He later worked as a doctor in the capital's impoverished industrial suburbs, breeding ground during the inter-war years for political militancy of Right and Left. Both episodes feature powerfully in his fictions and are crucial to our understanding of the man. Hewitt pulls no punches in recounting the violence and vile extremity of Celine's anti-semitic politics. At the same time he positions his subject in a wider cultural context and milieu. The legacy of post-Napoleonic Romanticism and its importance to French intellectual life in the 1920s are traced in absorbing detail, as is the history of French modernist fiction and the key role played in its development by Marcel Proust. Hewitt provides a fascinating account, especially of Montmartre, where Celine lived, between the wars, and its Bohemian culture, in which engagement in artistic experiment often went hand in hand with reactionary politics. No less fascinatingly he pursues Celine through the murky world of Occupied Paris, on to his retreat to Germany with the Vichy Government, and his subsequent imprisonment and exile in Denmark, before he was allowed to return to live in obscurity in France for the remaining years of his life. This invaluable book not only assesses the life and work of one of Europe's most important and innovative writers, it also casts revealing light on crucial areas of French cultural, social, and political history.