The astonishing reappearance of Céline’s unpublished works sets the stage for a new editorial adventure


August 2021 has been an emotional mounth for the publishing world. Several thousand unpublished writtings written by Louis-Ferdinand Céline [1] have resurfaced in extraordinary conditions more than seventy-five years after their disappearance, but not without raising questions about property and editorial rights.

The unpublished treasures thought to be lost forever have been found. The publishing house Gallimard immediatly announced its intention to play its role as ‘exclusive publisher’ of the work. Antoine Gallimard, president of the historic publishing house of the author of Journey to the End of the Night, says that Gallimard is ready to elaborate “in a very scrupulous way” the publishing work that could result from this discovery, “insofar as, of course, the writer’s heirs, with whom we have the best relations, have given us their agreement”. Indeed, the writer’s unpublished works were entrusted to his heirs in July. Despite the existence of a contract signed with Lucette Destouches, Céline’s widow, giving Gallimard “priority”, according to him, for the publication of all future unpublished writings, the conditions of exploitation of this treasure raise questions.

The writtings that disappeared during the Liberation of Paris, during the exile of the writer and his wife, had an uncertain path before arriving in the hands of Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, drama critic and former journalist of Libération. About fifteen years ago, the latter was given the manuscripts by one of his readers, a source whose identity he did not reveal at the time. Among the manuscripts there are several works, including King Krogold’s Will [2], hundreds of pages of two unpublished texts, one on the First World War and the other on Céline’s London period, six hundred pages of the novel Pipe Cracker [3], of which only a fragment was available, and the entire manuscript of Death on Credit. Nothing was ment to be disclosed to the public before Lucette Destouches’ death. Following the opening of an investigation for “concealment of theft” on the last 17 February by the Paris public prosecutor’s office due to a complaint lodged by the rightful owners, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat handed over the manuscripts in March 2021 to the Central Office for Combating Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC).

The idea of seeing these six thousand unpublished pages on bookstore shelves is appealing, but their publication raises questions about the property and editorial rights that could create obstacles to their circulation. In an interview for the excellent article by Fabio Benedetti Valentini published by Les Echos, the most renowned lawyers in intellectual property law discussed the conditions of exploitation of this treasure. The complexity of this case from the point of view of intellectual property law was highlighted by the fact that the manuscripts found are part of works already published by Gallimard, which justifies the legitimacy of the publishing house to exploit the manuscripts. Whatever the situation, the heirs of Céline’s widow will be able to decide what can be made public or not. On this subject, Anne-Marie Pecoraro, a partner at UGGC Avocats interviewed by Les Echos, explains the importance of the right of disclosure [4], according to which “only the author and the heirs can give the go ahead. They must respect the author’s will by asking themselves whether, in their opinion, Céline wanted to disclose this or that manuscript”. However, the rights holders could also choose not to publish the work. This would be problematic if it led to an abuse of non-disclosure [5]. As for the publishing support, most of Céline’s work is with the publishing house Gallimard and, as Anne-Marie Pecoraro argues in the same interview, that in case the contract between Gallimard and Céline’s widow is sound, “Gallimard has a promise that it would surely have already paid for with advances that Céline’s widow has received over the years. This solidifies its role”.

Assuming that the publishing house Gallimard has the agreement of the rightful owners to publish the recovered manuscripts, the publishing house will have to ensure that it is protected from auctions by other publishing houses interested in the works. Moreover, Céline’s work will fall into the public domain in about ten years, making it permanently accessible to all.

A meeting between the publishing house and the rightful owners at the beginning of September would establish a new stage in the adventure of the recovered manuscript.

By the IP/IT team of UGGC Avocats.

Sources :

[1] Louis Ferdinand Destouche, known as Louis-Ferdinand Céline, was born on 27 May 1894 in Courbevoie and died on 1 July 1961 in Meudon. He is known by his pen name, shortened to Céline, and is a writer most famous for Voyage au bout de la nuit, published in 1932.

[2] The Will of King Krogold is a medieval inspired legend.

[3] Le roman Casse-Pipe devait former un triptyque avec ses deux chefs-d’œuvre Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) et Mort à crédit (1936).

[4] Inscrit dans le Code de la Propriété Intellectuelle (CPI) à l’article L. 121-2, ce droit est l’un des attributs du droit moral. Il confère à l’auteur seul – ainsi qu’à ses ayants droit – le droit de porter son œuvre à la connaissance du public. Il revient également à l’auteur de fixer les procédés et conditions de cette divulgation. De ce fait, la possession du support matériel d’une œuvre ou la consultation d’un inédit n’autorise pas à les divulguer sans le consentement de l’auteur. Le droit de divulgation s’épuise par le premier usage qu’en fait l’auteur.

[5] L’article L. 121-3 du CPI prévoit toutefois la saisie du tribunal de grande instance « en cas d’abus notoire dans l’usage ou le non-usage du droit de divulgation de la part des représentants de l’auteur décédé ». Le juge donnera sa décision dans le respect des volontés testamentaires de l’auteur ou en fonction des agissements qui ont été les siens de son vivant.