In November 1931, La Gazette médicale in Paris carried a curiously vehement piece on the treatment of bleeding gums. It was signed Dr Louis F. Destouches and it took issue, in a blizzard of exclamation-marks, with the medicine of the schools, asking what good the professoriat and the textbooks were to a confused general practitioner, who wanted to do something simply therapeutic for his patients. This irascible, very literate broadside modulated in the last few lines into a puff for Sanogyl, a new remedial toothpaste, and it was the last thing that Dr Destouches published before his prodigious debut in fiction one year later, as Louis Ferdinand Céline, the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. There were foretastes of Céline in the truculent medical journalism and puffery of Destouches, but nothing to compare with the epochal vituperation with which the Voyage is filled; if he was to keep a practice the doctor required a cover. Céline was that cover, a first name borrowed from this unfamily-minded man's one commendable relative, the grandmother who had been a fount of refreshing sarcasm for him when he was a small boy but who had died when he was ten. The Voyage raised the name Céline instantly to the heights, but he kept Destouches on too, as an alias to practise medicine under, up to, during and even after the Second World War.
LRB 2 February 1989 | PDF Download