In 1944, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of the novels ''Journey to the End of the Night'' and ''Death on the Installment Plan,'' fled his native France. In the preceding decade he had written pamphlets blaming the impending war on industrialists, literary figures, politicians and Jews. His anti-Semitism became increasingly virulent, when the Occupation years ended in 1945 he went into exile in Denmark, where he was imprisoned for over a year for collaborating with the Nazis. Given amnesty by France in 1951, Celine returned, and found that his work was largely ignored.
In ''Conversations with Professor Y'' he set out to restore his reputation as an innovative literary stylist. The book appears here in English for the first time, alongside the French text, in a solid translation. Professor Y is a fictional foil for the author's digs at formal literature, and much of ''Conversations'' is hilarious. Celine is self-mocking as he tries to get his name back into circulation. He compares an eager genius to the new Big Bubbly soap product, is adamant in his revulsion at the ascendancy of ideas over emotion and is passionate in his desire to capture the immediacy of conversation on the page. ''The emotion of spoken language through the written form! Just reflect on that a bit, dear Professor Y! get your noodle in gear!'' Poor Professor Y! This dull academician (whose most intelligent comment is ''Why, holy moly! you're afloat in dialectics!'') is led on a dizzying tour of Paris, overwhelmed by a crazed author who claims he's on the brink of a revelation just when the professor expresses a need to find a bathroom. ''Conversations''is essential for Celine fans, and a good, if tame, introduction for the uninitiated.