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HISTORY

France to relaunch search for storied 16th-century shipwrecks

French researchers will this summer resume the search for the Cordeliere, a huge warship that was sunk during an intense 16th-century battle with the biggest vessel in the English fleet -- which also foundered in the clash.

France to relaunch search for storied 16th-century shipwrecks
The coast off Finistere, Brittany where the search will take place. Photo: AFP

The Cordeliere, pride of Anne of Brittany's navy, exploded off the coast of Brest in 1512 after Henry VIII's armada surprised her France-Brittany fleet
during the War of the League of Cambrai.

“What we have under the water here are two of the most significant museums of the 16th century's maritime history,” Michel L'Hour, head of France's
marine archeology department, said at a press conference.

“It's an underwater Pompeii.”

The search, set to run from June 20 to July 14, will cover about 25 square kilometres (10 square miles) stretching from the port at Brest to the
promontory at Saint-Mathieu, which would later give its name to the battle.

Discovering the arrival of the much larger English armada on August 10, 1512, the bulk of Queen Anne's fleet raced to safety in port.

But the Cordeliere, a 40-metre-long vessel armed with 200 canons, turned to take on the Regent, fending it off for several hours before an explosion of
unknown origin engulfed the French vessel, sinking both ships.

Nearly 1,500 people died, and the sacrifice by the Cordeliere's captain and crew acquired mythic status in Brittany's cultural history.

“As is often the case with ships, the Cordeliere was thrust into History just as it disappeared,” L'Hour said.

A series of searches were carried out from 1996 to 2001 without success, but the new effort is based on a new analysis of archival documents as well as a revised interpretation of possible tidal movements.

The Andre Malraux research vessel will use sonar and magnetometric sensors to map the seafloor, with potential anomalies investigated by divers or robotic devices.

“We might find something on the first day, or nothing for five years. But I am firmly convinced, one day we will find it,” L'Hour said.

HISTORY

‘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

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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