At the center of the affair that is currently inflaming the French literary world are 6,000 pages in the handwriting of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. This literary treasure, whose existence had been doubted by experts on the 20th-century novelist/physician, appeared suddenly, as though from another world, in June 2020 and is continuing to raise controversy.
The trove includes three unknown novels and extensive correspondence between Céline and various well-known personages. The value of the manuscripts is estimated at tens of millions of euros. It is not surprising that their unexpected discovery has roiled both his admirers and those who hate him. Along with their literary value, the writings are arousing strong passions for two main reasons: The first is the long-standing struggle between the image of the French underground – La Résistance – wrapped in heroism and patriotism, as opposed to that of the unsavory types who hitched their wagons to the Nazi occupation. The second is the tough French law stipulating that anyone who is in possession of property that does not belong to him will be persecuted for theft and subject to harsh punishment.
The controversy over the estate is a natural continuation of the scandal-filled life of Céline, the pen name of Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, characterized by disgusting antisemitic writings, collaboration with the Nazi occupation, informing on people, escapes, an arrest, a pardon obtained through fraud, and social ostracism. And in contrast to all that, his literary works have earned him a place among the greats of modern literature.
In June 1944, about a week after the Allied forces invaded Normandy and the danger of facing a firing squad as a traitor was greater than ever, Céline, his wife Lucette and their cat Bébert fled down the stairs of the building where they lived on rue Girardon in the Montmartre. With the help of forged documents, the couple made it to southern Germany, where leaders of the Vichy regime were residing at Sigmaringen Castle, among them the head of the puppet government, Marshal Philippe Pétain, and President of the Council of Ministers Pierre Laval, whose personal physician was Céline.
In March 1945 Céline obtained a visa to occupied Denmark by means of the extreme right-wing attorney Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour. There, in the courtyard of the home of a friend, he hid some of his wealth. When the war ended, Céline was arrested on charges of collaborating with the enemy. He was tried in absentia by a French court and sentenced to a prison term that he served in Denmark.
- This book encouraged anti-Semites to help the Nazis kill France's Jews. It should be republished
- Anti-Semitic pamphlets by Celine to be republished in France, sparking controversy
- The Holocaust is still relevant to French literature: An interview with Eric Vuillard
In 1951 his lawyer obtained a pardon for him, thanks to the fact that he used his client's original name, Destouches. The cursed writer returned to France, where he lived, until his death in 1961, off the royalties of his books, which were published by Gallimard. After many years of being shunned, he returned to the literary world with his trilogy, “Castle to Castle,” “North” and “Rigadon,” set during his years in exile in Germany and Denmark.
From his escape in 1944 to the day of his death, Céline complained to anyone who would listen that after he fled from Paris, four manuscripts of novels were stolen from his apartment. The apartment had indeed been emptied of its contents and Resistance figure Yves Morandat, a close associate of General Charles de Gaulle, moved in there. The concierge of the building said that during their searches, members of the Resistance threw dozens of pages out of the window, which fluttered in the wind and landed in the trash bins below, on rue Girardon.
“Céline was convinced that Oscar Rosembly, the accountant he employed during the war years, whom he considered a Jew, had stolen the documents,” says Émile Brami, who has written three biographies about the novelist and initiated a Sherlock Holmes-style investigation into the mystery of the manuscripts lost some 40 years ago.
Barmi, a Tunisian Jew who immigrated in Paris in the 1960s, was for many years the proprietor of a second-hand bookstore in the city. “I discovered Céline’s works in my youth. I read ‘Journey to the End of Night’ and ‘Death on the Installment Plan’ and I was amazed by his talent,” he says, in a telephone interview. “In those years people didn’t read Céline. An old bookseller on the banks of the Seine sold me in great secrecy ‘something very special,’ as he put it. This was one of Céline’s antisemitic manifestos, ‘Bagatelles pour un massacre.’ In the period between the two world wars, antisemitism was a routine matter in France. ‘Bagatelles pour un massacre’ excited the critics who belonged to the right but others also thought it was a good book.”
'Céline was convinced that Oscar Rosembly, the accountant he employed during the war years, whom he considered a Jew, had stolen the documents'
How did you feel, as a Jew, reading his antisemitic manifestos?
“I don’t justify Céline in any way. He was born into an antisemitic family and died an unredeemed antisemite. But I admit that as a Tunisian-born Jew whose parents did not suffer from Nazi persecution and did not experience the Holocaust, I wasn’t angry at him, as compared to family members of survivors.”
“Rosembly,” Brami continues, “did indeed have Jewish roots. His family, which came from Central Europe, was baptized more than 400 years ago. He himself was born in Corsica, was an aide to a French cabinet minister until 1939 and afterward disappeared until 1943. When he reappeared in the midst of the war, he was immediately suspected of being a Jew. Rosembly lived in the home of his friend Gen Paul, Céline’s neighbor. When the rumor spread that the Gestapo was conducting searches to find Jews, Rosembly hid in Céline’s apartment – Céline employed him as his accountant. He [Rosembly] knew the exact location of the manuscripts, above a cupboard in the apartment, and he was also aware of their literary importance. He claims that after the liberation of Paris he made a search of Céline’s apartment, under orders of Morandat, the member of the Resistance, who had moved in there. Nevertheless, he was arrested on charges of looting. After he was released from prison he disappeared for several years, apparently to the United States. When he returned to France, he went back to his birthplace in Corsica, where he died in 1990. He never revealed the existence and/or whereabouts of Céline’s manuscripts.”
In 1991 Brami purchased the records of Céline’s trial from the son of lawyer Tixier-Vignancour: “I discovered an interesting fact about Rosembly: Céline himself had accused him of theft and wrote this explicitly in May 1949 in a letter in the ‘Correspondences’ chapter in the prestigious volume of Gallimard’s ‘la Pléiade.’ After I phoned all 158 people with the name Rosembly in the phone book, I finally came to his daughter, Marie-Luce Rosembly, who lived in Corsica. For four years we conducted weekly phone conversations, in which she told me that in her father’s archive there were some letters from Céline. We made an appointment to meet but she cancelled at the last minute and in 2003 I decided to stop courting her. She died in 2020, just as the existence of the lost manuscripts were suddenly discovered.”
In 2001, the manuscript of “Journey to the End of Night” was put up for auction and was purchased by the French National Library for 8 million euros.
“Among the 6,000 pages that were recently discovered,” relates Brami, “was the manuscript of ‘Death on the Installment Plan’; the novel ‘Cannon-Fodder,’ which according to experts is the missing link in the trilogy that includes ‘Journey to the End of Night’ and ‘Death on the Installment Plan’; a novel entitled ‘The Legend of King Krogold’ that is set in the Middle Ages; a book entitled ‘London’ about the period Céline spent in England between the two wars, and correspondence with several people, among them the writer Robert Brasillach, a [Nazi] collaborator who was executed after the war. This treasure is worth tens of millions of euros.”
In June 2020, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, formerly a journalist for the newspaper Libération, came to the office of attorney Emmanuel Pierrat, who specializes in cases involving literary property, bearing two suitcases with Céline’s manuscripts. According to Thibaudat, the manuscripts were given to him in 2006 when he was working at Libération by a descendent of one of the Resistance members, who had taken them during the search of Céline’s apartment in June 1944. Thibaudat said that the father of the Resistance fighter had made him swear not to publish the manuscripts so as “not to contribute to Lucette’s wealth” – a reference to Céline’s widow. Lucette had lived a long life but had already died in 2019 at the age of 107.
Thibaudat added, according to Pierrat, that since 2006 he had patiently arranged and typed the manuscripts. He claims he is “not interested in money” but wanted to be the editor responsible for the publication of the original novels. He also strenuously refused to reveal the identity of the person who had given him the manuscripts, “because of his right as a journalist not to reveal his sources.”
For his part, Brami does not believe a single word that Thibaudat says. “In 2006, the year he said he received the manuscripts, he was no longer a journalist and therefore he has to reveal his sources,” he argues. “The man held on to the treasure in an illegal manner and also prevented the publication of the books.”
However, attorney Pierrat believes the story about the descendant of the Resistance fighter and notes that relatives of the Thibaudat had themselves been in the Resistance and he had possibly received the materials from one of them.
Brami refutes this claim as well. “As a collector and old bookstore proprietor I specialize in manuscripts. I held Céline’s pages in my hands. I can say that they were not kept for 62 years in a damp French cellar, as Thibaudat claims. These are dry pages that apparently were kept in a warm, a dry place that is suitable to Corsica, which is where Rosembly lived and died.”
In June 2020 journalist Thibaudat and lawyer Pierrat contacted Lucette Destouches’ heirs – a lawyer of 89 and a dancer of 69. Both were excited by the discovery and by the fact that Céline’s claim about a theft turned out to be correct. But when Thibaudat insisted on his right to edit and publish the materials, the heirs rebelled. According to Véronique Robert-Chovin, a close friend of Lucette Destouches, Céline’s widow had been in desperate need of money in her final years, sick and alone. “Why did he wait so many years to reveal them? What did he fear?” she said in an interview to the weekly news magazine Marianne.
Brami is convinced that Marie-Luce Rosembly’s son, a left-leaning journalist who does not wish to be identified, is the one who gave the papers to Thibaudat after his mother’s death. “Everyone is afraid as though of fire to admit they had held the manuscripts when the threat of a charge of theft of something valuable is hanging over their heads,” Brami says.
This past June, after Lucette Destouches’ heirs submitted an appeal to the police, Thibaudat was forced to hand the materials over to them. The two filed a suit for theft and illegally holding property worth millions of euros; the case is still under investigation.
According to Marianne magazine, the heirs, who are subject to astronomical inheritance taxes, decided to donate the manuscript of “Death on the Installment Plan” to the National Library of France; the two other books will be published soon by Gallimard
But this whole story cannot end without another twist in the plot: In “Journey to the End of Night,” there is no mention of Céline’s injuries and his hospitalization in the military hospital at Hazebrouck. The book begins with his recovery at the Val-de-Grâce hospital in Paris but among the recently discovered pages are his handwritten lines mentioning a nurse named Alice David who cared for him – and the baby daughter they had.
“The daughter would have to be 106 today and she is apparently no longer alive. Alice David, who was from a devout Christian family, hid the birth of the child and gave the baby to Alice’s married sister who lived in London. Céline visited her during the time he was in London,” Prof. Pierre-Marie Miroux, an expert on Céline, said in an interview with Marianne. “If her children are found, they will be able to demand their portion of the estate.”
According to Brami, “Céline had one daughter called Colette, who was born in 1920, with his first wife. After his death there was a notary who persuaded her that her father had been sunk in debt and recommended that she relinquish her rights in the estate. A regrettable mistake for her four children: She died in 2011 but they could have demanded their rightful share.”