PARIS – Dragging two large suitcases filled with yellowed sheets of paper filled with scribbled lines, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, a former cultural writer for a French newspaper, entered the office of Emmanuel Pierrat, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property.
“It’s big,” Mr. Thibaudat told the lawyer on the phone before coming to his office last year with his bulging suitcases.
Inside, Mr. Pierrat found a literary treasure: long-lost manuscripts of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the acclaimed but equally vilified French author who wrote classics like “Voyage to the End of the Night” , published in 1932, along with virulent anti-Semitic tracts.
“This is the greatest literary discovery of all time,” Mr. Pierrat marveled in an interview, recounting his excitement as he laid out the papers in his office and reviewed them with Mr. Thibaudat.
Celine has always maintained that the manuscripts were robbed in his Paris apartment after his escape to Germany in 1944, fearing that he would be punished as a collaborator during the liberation of the city by the Allies.
After decades of fruitless research, most Celine scholars had given up hope of locating the manuscripts – 6,000 unpublished pages that included a complete version of a novel that was only printed in unfinished form, and a another hitherto unknown work.
Mr Thibaudat said he received manuscripts from one or more undisclosed benefactors – he declined to expand – about 15 years ago. But he had kept the hiding place a secret, awaiting the death of Celine’s widow, at the behest of the benefactor, whose wish was that an “anti-Semitic family” not benefit from the treasure, he said in an interview.
Now he had turned to Mr Pierrat, the lawyer, in the hope of keeping them in the public domain and accessible to researchers.
“We didn’t expect it anymore,” said Annick Duraffour, a literary scholar who has written a book on Celine’s anti-Semitism. “It’s mind-blowing.”
But the discovery was quickly mired in controversy. Celine’s heirs filed a lawsuit against Mr Thibaudat in February, accusing him of receiving stolen property and demanding the manuscripts as the rightful owners of Celine’s estate.
The discovery and accusations of theft, first revealed in the newspaper Le Monde over the summer, triggered a new toll in France about Celine. He was unquestionably a great novelist, but one who also embraced the collaborationist government that sent many French Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.
It is studied in high schools, especially for its revolutionary style of capturing the way people spoke, but it also painfully reminds the French of their country’s wartime surrender to Germany and its role in the Holocaust. .
David Alliot, a literary scholar, said the problem for many French people was that although Celine was a “literary genius,” he was a deeply flawed human being. “And we don’t know how to handle this in France. It is the history of France that we find through these manuscripts.
The fate of these papers has long been obscure.
In June 1944, while the Allied forces landed on the Normandy coast, many collaborators fled Paris, including Céline, who left with her new wife, Lucette Destouches, her cat Bébert under her arm and gold sewn into her jacket. He said he left his manuscripts in his apartment in Montmartre, crammed over a cupboard. But they ended up disappearing.
Many details of how they ended up in Mr. Thibaudat’s hands are a mystery.
Céline returned to France in 1951 after having been granted amnesty. He has long blamed Oscar Rosembly, a neighbor he hired to do his accounting, for the disappearance of the papers – a charge he is not known to have denied.
“Rosembly was a cultured man who knew Celine was a great writer and that these documents were precious,” said Émile Brami, 71, a Jewish bookseller in Paris who dedicated his life to Celine’s work. “Today, the only trail that stands is the Rosembly trail. “
In the late 1990s, Mr Brami said he found Marie-Luce, Mr Rosembly’s daughter, in Corsica, and told him that she still had “a lot of Celine stuff”. But he was never able to meet her as she repeatedly canceled their dates at the last minute, he said. He eventually gave up and Ms. Rosembly passed away in November 2020, taking her secrets with her.
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Mr Thibaudat, who brought the manuscripts to the lawyer, said he had never heard of Mr Rosembly before being questioned by police in July after the trial.
He said he received the manuscripts – which included the full version of the novel “Casse-pipe”, partially published in 1949, and a hitherto unknown novel titled “London” – in the early 2000s from a source that he refused to identify.
“The people who gave them to me saw it was to get rid of them,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was a burden on them.” At the time he received the manuscripts, Mr. Thibaudat was writing on cultural issues for the newspaper Liberation.
The source had a request, he said: keep the manuscripts secret until the death of Mrs. Destouches, Celine’s widow. The benefactor told him it was to keep the potential winnings – perhaps millions of dollars – from a family tainted with anti-Semitism, he said.
Mr Thibaudat was given bundles of scrambled papers held together by wooden clothespins – as Celine usually tied loose sheets of her 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 that long.
Ms. Destouches died in November 2019, at the age of 107, giving her ample time to sort, decipher and transcribe the papers, he said.
“It was exhausting but sensual work,” he said. “Spending entire nights alone with Celine’s manuscripts is an unforgettable feeling.
With his lawyer by his side, Me Thibaudat met Celine’s heirs in June 2020. It did not go well.
Mr. Thibaudat suggested that the manuscripts be handed over to a public institution to make them accessible to researchers. François Gibault, 89, and Véronique Chovin, 69, heirs to Céline’s work through their friendships with family, were indignant and sued Mr. Thibaudat, demanding compensation for years of lost income .
“Emmanuel Pierrat and Thibaudat present themselves as great and generous donors,” said Mr. Gibault, who is also the author of a biography of Céline, in an interview. “It horrifies me.”
In July, Mr. Thibaudat finally handed over the manuscripts on the order of prosecutors. During a four-hour interview with the police, Mr. Thibaudat refused to quote his source. The investigation is continuing.
“Fifteen years of non-exploitation of such books are worth millions of euros,” said Jérémie Assous, lawyer and long-time friend of Celine’s heirs. “He doesn’t protect his source, he protects a thief.”
Twenty years ago, the original manuscript of Céline’s “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, her first and most famous work, was bought by the French state for nearly 2 million euros, or about 2.3 million euros. millions of dollars.
The publication of the newly unearthed manuscripts is being negotiated with several French publishing houses, an event eagerly awaited by the French literary scene.
“This will completely renew our knowledge of the early literary period of Celine’s life,” said Mr. Alliot, the researcher. “We are going to read the First World War as recounted by Céline, it’s fascinating.
For the heirs, there is pressure for a speedy resolution of the matter. Celine’s works will fall into the public domain within 10 years, allowing any publisher to sell them without paying royalties.
One of the researchers’ concerns is that Celine’s heirs will try to air her history of anti-Semitism by concealing articles from public view.
Ms. Duraffour, who was instrumental in a successful campaign in 2018 to prevent the reissue of Celine’s anti-Semitic leaflets, is among those affected.
“Our great desire is to have full access to the manuscripts,” she said. “What will they do if they find compromising documents?” We have no certainty.
Mr. Gibault said, however, that nothing would be hidden. And Mr. Brami, the bookseller who studied Celine, said the writer’s unpleasant past was already well established.
“If we publish Celine’s anti-Semitic stuff that has been found, I don’t think it will change her reputation as an anti-Semite in any way,” he said. “It’s already done.”