Destouches was born in Courbevoie, Seine, where his mother kept a lace shop. He joined a cuirassier regiment in 1913 and was awarded the military medal for an exploit in World War I that left him badly wounded. Working for the Rockefeller Foundation in Africa at the end of the war, he decided to make medicine his career and qualified as a doctor in 1924. After a spell in Geneva with the League of Nations and visits to the USA, Canada, and Cuba, he finally settled as a dispensing physician in Paris. Here he began work on his major novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; translated as Journey to the End of the Night, 1960), adopting as a pseudonym his grandmother's Christian name, Céline. Cynical and pessimistic, the novel was inspired by the author's own experiences in World War I and in Africa and is written in a controversial antiliterary style, heavily laden with slang. Mort à crédit (1936; translated as Death on the Instalment Plan, 1938), was based on Céline's experience as a doctor and shows his bitter contempt for humanity.
In the years immediately preceding World War II Céline further compromised his reputation by launching a violent antisemitic attack in the pamphlets Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937) and L'École des cadavres (1938). Increasingly disenchanted by politics, he was nevertheless suspected of collaboration during World War II, and in 1944 was forced to flee to Denmark, where he spent some eighteen months in prison. In 1951 Céline was allowed to return to France, where he devoted himself to writing. The first part of a trilogy, D'Un Château à l'autre (1957; translated as Castle to Castle, 1963), brought him back into the public eye. Nord (translated as North, 1972) followed in 1960; the final part of the trilogy, Rigodon (translated as Rigadoon, 1974), was published posthumously in 1969.