Newly Unearthed Work by a Revered and Reviled Novelist Causes a Stir in France
PARIS — Dragging two large suitcases packed with yellowed sheets of paper filled with scribbled lines, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, a former culture …
PARIS — Dragging two large suitcases packed with yellowed sheets of paper filled with scribbled lines, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, a former culture writer with a French newspaper, entered the office of Emmanuel Pierrat, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property.
“It’s big,” Mr. Thibaudat had told the lawyer over the phone before showing up at his office last year with his bulging suitcases.
Inside, Mr. Pierrat found a literary treasure trove: long-lost manuscripts by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the acclaimed but equally reviled French author who wrote classics like “Journey to the End of the Night,” published in 1932, as well as virulently antisemitic tracts.
“This is the greatest literary discovery ever,” Mr. Pierrat marveled in an interview, recounting his excitement as he spread the papers around his office and examined them with Mr. Thibaudat.
Céline always maintained that the manuscripts had beenstolen from his Paris apartment after he escaped to Germany in 1944, fearing that he would be punished as a collaborator when the Allies liberated the city.
After decades of fruitless research, most Céline specialists had given up hope of finding the manuscripts — 6,000 unpublished pages that included a complete version of a novel that was printed only in an unfinished form, and another previously unknown work.
Mr. Thibaudat said he was given the manuscripts by an undisclosed benefactor, or benefactors — he declined to elaborate — about 15 years ago. But he had kept the stash secret, waiting for Céline’s widow to die, at the request of the benefactor, whose wish was that an “antisemitic family” would not profit from the trove, he said in an interview.
Now he had come to Mr. Pierrat, the lawyer, in the hope of keeping them in the public domain and accessible to researchers.
“We weren’t expecting it anymore,” said Annick Duraffour, a literary researcher who wrote a book on Céline’s antisemitism. “It’s stunning.”
But the discovery was soon mired in controversy. Céline’s heirs filed a lawsuit against Mr. Thibaudat in February, accusing him of handling stolen goods and demanding the manuscripts as the rightful owners of Céline’s estate.
The discovery and accusations of theft, first revealed in the newspaper Le Monde over the summer, set off a new reckoning in France about Céline. He was an incontestably great novelist, but one who also embraced the collaborationist government that sent many French Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.
He is studied in high schools, particularly for his revolutionary style of capturing the way people spoke, but he is also a painful reminder to the French of their country’s wartime capitulation to Germany and its role in the Holocaust.
David Alliot, a literary researcher, said the issue for many French was that while Céline was a “literary genius,” he was a deeply flawed human being. “And we don’t know how to deal with that in France. It’s the history of France that we find through these manuscripts.”
The fate of these papers has long been murky.
In June 1944, as Allied forces landed on the Normandy coast, a host of collaborators fled Paris, including Céline, who left along with his new wife, Lucette Destouches, his cat Bébert under his arm and some gold sewn into his vest. He said he left his manuscripts behind in his Montmartre apartment, stuffed above a cupboard. But they eventually disappeared.
Many of the details of how they ended up in Mr. Thibaudat’s hands are a mystery.
Céline returned to France in 1951 after receiving amnesty. He long blamed Oscar Rosembly, a neighbor he had hired to do his bookkeeping, for the disappearance of the papers — a charge he is not known to have denied.
“Rosembly was a cultured man who knew that Céline was a great writer and that these documents were valuable,” said Émile Brami, 71, a Jewish bookseller in Paris who has devoted his life to Céline’s work. “Today, the only trail that stands up is the Rosembly trail.”
In the late 1990s, Mr. Brami said he found Marie-Luce, Mr. Rosembly’s daughter, in Corsica, and she told him that she still had “a lot of stuff from Céline.” But he was never able to meet her because she repeatedly canceled their appointments at the last minute, he said. He finally gave up and Ms. Rosembly died in November 2020, taking her secrets with her.
Mr. Thibaudat, who took the manuscripts to the lawyer, said he had never heard of Mr. Rosembly before he was interviewed by the police in July after the lawsuit.
He said he had received the manuscripts — which included the complete version of the novel “Casse-pipe,” partly published in 1949, and a previously unknown novel titled “Londres” — in the early 2000s from a source he declined to identify.
“The people who gave them to me saw it as getting rid of them,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was a burden for them.” At the time he received the manuscripts, Mr. Thibaudat was writing about cultural issues for the newspaper Libération.
The source had one demand, he said: Keep the manuscripts secret until the death of Ms. Destouches, Céline’s widow. The benefactor told him it was to keep potential earnings — possibly millions of dollars — from a family tainted by antisemitism, he said.
Mr. Thibaudat was given sheafs of jumbled papers held together with wooden clothespins — the way Céline typically attached the loose leaves of his work.
“I was bound by this oath; I couldn’t betray people,” he said in the interview. “So I was waiting. I didn’t think it would last this long.”
Ms. Destouches died in November 2019, at 107, giving him ample time to sort, decipher and transcribe the papers, he said.
“It was an exhausting but sensual job,” he said. “Spending whole nights alone with Céline’s manuscripts is an unforgettable feeling.”
With his lawyer by his side, Mr. Thibaudat met Céline’s heirs in June 2020. It did not go well.
Mr. Thibaudat suggested that the manuscripts be given to a public institution to make them accessible to researchers. François Gibault, 89, and Véronique Chovin, 69, the heirs to Céline’s work through their connections as friends to the family, were outraged, and sued Mr. Thibaudat, demanding compensation for years of lost revenues.
“Emmanuel Pierrat and Thibaudat present themselves as great and generous donors,” Mr. Gibault, who is also the author of a biography of Céline, said in an interview. “It horrifies me.”
In July, Mr. Thibaudat finally handed over the manuscripts on the orders of prosecutors.During a four-hour interview with the police, Mr. Thibaudat refused to name his source. The investigation is continuing.
“Fifteen years of non-exploitation of such books is worth millions of euros,” said Jérémie Assous, the lawyer and longtime friend of Céline’s heirs. “He’s not protecting his source, he’s protecting a thief.”
Twenty years ago, the original manuscript of Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night,” his first and most famous work, was bought by the French state for almost 2 million euros, or about $2.3 million.
The publication of the newly unearthed manuscripts is being negotiated with several French publishing houses, an event eagerly awaited by the French literary scene.
“It will completely renew our knowledge of the first literary period of Céline’s life,” said Mr. Alliot, the researcher. “We are going to read the First World War told by Céline — it’s exciting.”
For the heirs, there is pressure for a speedy resolution of the case. Céline’s works will fall into the public domain within 10 years, allowing any publisher to sell them without paying royalties.
One concern of scholars is that Céline’s heirs will try to airbrush his history of antisemitism by withholding papers from public view.
Ms. Duraffour, who was instrumental in a successful campaign in 2018 to prevent the republishing of Céline’s antisemitic pamphlets, is among those concerned.
“Our great desire is to have full access to manuscripts,” she said. “What will they do if they find compromising documents? We have no certainty.”
Mr. Gibault, however, said nothing would be hidden. And Mr. Brami, the bookshop owner who has studied Céline, said the writer’s distasteful past was well established already.
“If we publish antisemitic stuff by Céline that has been found, I don’t think it will change his reputation as an antisemite in any way,” he said. “That’s already done.”