Gallimard publishes « Londres », an unpublished short story by the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline on the slums of the British capital.

An unpublished novel by the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Londonappears on Thursday, a novel that had long disappeared and which depicts the cruelty of the underworld of the British capital a century ago.

This volume of some 500 pages is drawn from nearly 1,200 handwritten pages that Céline, a fervent collaborationist, had left behind when fleeing Paris for Germany in June 1944.

Sheltered for three quarters of a century, these writings unexpectedly reappeared in 2021.

Gallimard editions have already published in May Waranother shorter novel, where a seriously wounded First World War soldier, Brigadier Ferdinand, talks about his recovery. London is the sequel.

Ferdinand, who escaped the butchery of the Battle of Flanders, escaped in 1916 across the Channel.

“We felt it in London during the war and everywhere, but still from afar. On the pavement in the evening it was even more jam-packed with attractions than usual and the shops congested with enthusiasts”, describes the author.

Dark side of megacities

Sent to the French consulate in London in 1915 after his forehead injury, Louis Ferdinand Destouches, known as Céline (1894-1961) contracts a marriage of which the civil status will never be known. At the end of a life of pleasures and boredom, he cast off for Cameroon in 1916.

In the writer’s reference biography, republished on October 6 by Bouquins, François Gibault describes the young man as « captivated by the nightlife of London, that of the slums, that of Soho where he found himself with [son ami Georges] Geoffroy in the midst of prostitutes and hoodlums who had taken him in sympathy”.

This is roughly the plot of Londonan autofiction most likely written in 1934, long before the term was coined.

Ferdinand is a hairy man on borrowed time, who writes as one speaks in the suburbs from which he comes. He talks about the underworld of the pimps of the « Leicester boarding house » and his passion for Angèle, a prostitute pulled out of the hell of the brothel by a rich Englishman.

Céline depicts an impressive number of perverse or lost characters, and violent or poignant scenes, eloquent on the darkest face of modern megalopolises.

Among scholars in literature, a debate concerns what really represents London : imperfect first draft of two other London novels, Guignol’s Band (1944) and London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II (1964), or work in its own right?

Critical device

For the publisher, Gallimard, the challenge is different. It was a question of demonstrating a know-how, so that quickly arrives in bookstore a volume made up from pages difficult to decipher.

War has already been a great success with 163,000 copies sold, according to the GfK firm.

The scholar who established the edition of London, Régis Tettamanzi, evokes in the introduction “problems that we will euphemistically qualify as difficult”: names of characters that vary, illegible words, largely absent punctuation, mistreated grammar, etc. The result is however very readable.

Another concern: to handle with tact the explosive material that is Celine’s virulent anti-Semitism.

While the lack of critical apparatus around War had surprised or annoyed, this time, Gallimard tackles the question head-on. Especially since London depicts Jews stranded in slums and has a key character who happens to be Jewish, Dr. Yugenbitz, a doctor who introduces Ferdinand to his art.

“On the subject of racism, the novel does not lend itself to excessive simplifications; it rather illustrates the state of mind of Céline before the crisis of 1936 and the pamphleteer fury of the following years”, advances Régis Tettamanzi.

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