His novels are corrosively cynical, rage-fuelled attacks on modern life that portray humanity as selfish, violent, lustful beasts who commit horrible crimes for trivial reasons. Céline himself wasn’t much better.
‘When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty,” he said. “But on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word. When that’s done, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit.’
The Obscene Truth
His first novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) was a smash success in 1932, although banned in many countries for obscenity. Many took the doctor and war hero author for a man of the left. They changed their minds when he began writing violently anti-semitic pamphlets later in the decade. Fans claimed it was the after effects of wounds from the war; literary critics suggested it was all a fictional experiment. They were wrong. Céline had moved to the extreme right.
He was on the fringes of the Paris collaborationist scene after the Nazis invaded in 1940, although many Germany and French fascists thought he was crazy. No-one could tell if he was serious when he told a leading Nazi that Hitler was dead and had been replaced by a Jewish double.
Céline escaped retribution at the end of the war by fleeing France and only returning after an amnesty. He spent the rest of his life as a totem of transgression for writers, like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who believed in saying the unsayable about life. Writers as different as Charles Bukowski and Martin Amis continued to praise him after his 1961 death.
And, as a young soldier, he may have slept with the notorious spy Mata Hari.
She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland. When she walked into the French Consulate in London’d Bedford Square in December 1915 everyone knew her as Mata Hari.
At 18-years-old Zelle had gone to the Dutch East Indies to marry an older, socially-prominent alcoholic. The marriage was not a success. They had two children but one died young, possibly poisoned by treatment for syphilis contracted at birth from his parents. The couple moved back to the Netherlands in 1902 and Zelle’s husband got custody of their surviving daughter.
Zelle moved to Paris without much money and circulated in the bohemian world of artists and circus performers. She worked as a model and a rode horses in the big top before finding the act that would make her famous. In 1905 she reinvented herself as Javanese princess Mata Hari (Malay for ‘Eye of the Dawn’) and performed supposedly authentic native dance routines. The main attraction for the mostly male audience was Zelle getting naked, except for a jewelled bra.
It was stripping with a halo of the exotic. Zelle’s defenders linked her with the free-form modern dance movement of Isadora Duncan, but the act’s success owed more to a growing taste for louche bohemianism among the middle-classes. Zelle soon had a wealthy lover, celebrity, and entry to upper-class French life.
The routine had got stale in the years before the First World War. Zelle concentrated on having affairs with powerful men across Europe. She continued her criss-crossing of the continent even after the war broke out, travelling on her neutral Dutch passport. The authorities in Britain got suspicious when she claimed to be working for French intelligence. The French said they had never heard of her.
Sex and Visas
In late 1915 Zelle was in London to get a visa for France. Her contact at the French consulate was a twenty-one-year-old soldier called Louis Destouches, invalided out of the trenches and enjoying the pubs, music hall, and prostitutes of wartime London.
Zelle was only in London for a few days, staying at the Savoy. While waiting for the visa, she took Destouches and his colleague George Geoffroy out for dinner at the hotel. Geoffroy claimed it was a meal and nothing more. Céline’s later wife claimed a short affair happened; possibly it was a threesome involving Geoffroy.
Mata Hari went on to Paris. She was arrested in February 1917. French intelligence had allowed her to get the name of a double agent a few month earlier and the Germans had just shot him. That was all the proof they needed.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was shot by a firing squad in November. She was 41-years-old.
Céline never talked about her, which many see as strange for a man who delighted in lifting the stone to expose what wriggles underneath. If an affair did happen then the key to his silence may be Geoffroy’s revelation that the pair knew Zelle was mixed up in some kind of espionage and would be in trouble if she went to France. It added the spice of betrayal to whatever happened that night at the Savoy. Perhaps Céline had a sense of shame after all.
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