‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later
A woman holds a copy of controversial French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine's novel 'Guerre' (War), two days ahead of its release. (Photo: Christophe Archambault / AFP)

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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Why is the Sanremo music festival so important to Italians?

The Sanremo Music Festival has returned to unite Italy in song, comedy and sometimes, mockery. As the competition kicks off on Tuesday, it will likely be the topic of conversation all week - here's why it remains significant to Italy 72 years after it began.

Italian singer and showman Rosario Tindaro Fiorello, aka Fiorello, Bologna's Serbian coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and AC Milan's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic perform during the San Remo 2021 music festival.
Italian singer and showman Rosario Tindaro Fiorello, aka Fiorello, Bologna's Serbian coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and AC Milan's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic perform during the San Remo 2021 music festival. (Photo by Marco RAVAGLI / AFP)

Italy’s most famous song competition is back for another year at Theatre Ariston, which has been the venue for the festival since 1977.

The official title, Festival della canzone italiana di Sanremo, is held in the Ligurian seaside town of the same name and, this year 25 artists will compete for the winning spot over five nights from February 1st – 5th.

As it’s been held continuously since 1951, Sanremo takes the title of the longest-running national televised singing competition.

That makes Sanremo even older than the Eurovision song contest – and it was in fact the inspiration for the famously cheesy European music competition.

READ ALSO: Sanremo: Ten things to know about Italy’s answer to Eurovision

Within Italy, the history, and therefore nostalgia, is just one reason why most of the country will be glued to their television screens all week.

The cultural event seems to whip up excitement among broadcasters, journalists and viewers alike, as social media channels are awash with promotions and jokes about the participants ahead of the contest.

At first glance however, the appeal of the show is not always that obvious to outsiders.

So just what is it about the festival that pulls together an entire nation, regardless of whether they fall into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camp?

Here’s a deeper look into this curious Italian tradition.

It creates icons

This is where the Sanremo Music Festival differs from Eurovision: it is often a springboard to real fame and launches songs that stand the test of time.

It has led to the success of epochal songs such as the 1958 winning track ‘Volare‘ (the real title is actually ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu‘) by Domenico Modugno, ‘Quando, quando, quando‘ by Tony Renis, ‘Che sarà‘ by Ricchi e Poveri andFelicità‘ by Al Bano e Romina.

US singer Christina Aguilera duets with Italian singer Andrea Bocelli on the stage of the Ariston Theatre in San Remo, during the 56th Italian music festival in 2006. AFP PHOTO/Tiziana Fabi

Singers such as Andrea Bocelli and Laura Pausini can thank this music competition for their careers too. Last year’s winners Mäneskin, who went on to take the Eurovision trophy with the same song Zitti e Buoni, were also launched into the spotlight by Sanremo and will return as guests in 2022.

READ ALSO: ‘Zitti e buoni’: The Italian vocab you need to understand Italy’s Eurovision winner

If you’re new to Italy’s most famous music festival and slightly non-plussed by it, rest assured that it is in fact globally renowned and pulls in the already rich and famous. Previous big-name international acts include Stevie Wonder, Cher, Shirley Bassey, Robbie Williams and Queen.

The audience is involved

Some Italians will tell you they watch the event for the whole five days straight, others will profess they’re not (but they really are).

This is one Italian tradition that gets everyone involved, which is now much more interactive thanks to the public online voting element.

Each act will perform their original song with the winner eventually selected by both a jury and the online vote.

After each of the 25 artists has performed their song twice, Friday is something of a break as international and Italian cover songs are performed.

READ ALSO: Sanremo: Andrea Bocelli’s duet with son brings down the house

Then, all the original songs are performed once more on Saturday, before the winner is announced.

It is almost laughably long-winded

How many times each act performs their song gives you a clue to how long each day drags on.

This aspect of the festival is light-heartedly mocked each year on social media, as posts and memes describe how dogs will need to take themselves on walks or how, thanks to the competition running until the small hours of the morning, you’ll struggle to simply keep awake throughout.

The social media participation

In fact, the memes and social media gags are now just as anticipated as the event itself. Some viewers joke about the pain of watching the songs, but how it’s all worth it for the jokes online.

As some point out, this could be more of an attraction for younger members of the audience. Any slip-up, such as that of the Italian singers Bugo and Morgan, who were supposed to perform the song ‘Sincero’ together in 2020, are ripe for getting ripped.

When it was almost two o’clock in the morning and it was their turn at last, Morgan went on stage alone and started to sing, changing the lyrics in an apparent attack on Bugo, who then left the stage even before he had the chance to sing a note. They were then disqualified from the competition.

To join in with the song and slating, broadcaster RAI1 will be screening the competition every evening from 20.35, and in streaming on Rai Play throughout.

The event is back to 100 percent capacity with the Covid ‘super green pass‘ after it being held behind closed doors to an empty theatre last year.