On Literary Brilliance and Moral Rot
Last December, the prestigious French publishing house Gallimard revealed plans to republish three so-called pamphlets first penned more than 70 years ago. The announcement provoked an earthquake in French literary and political circles, exposing ideological and artistic fault lines more than a century old. Its aftershocks are still reverberating. This is not surprising, given the identity of the author—Louis-Ferdinand Céline—and nature of the works: Bagatelles pour un massacre (Bagatelles for a Massacre), Les beaux draps (A Fine Mess), and L’École des cadavres (The School of Cadavers).
As almost anyone who has studied French literature knows, Céline is the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), one of the 20th century’s darkest and most dazzling works of fiction. The novel traces the life of Ferdinand Bardamu, a semiautobiographical character whose bleak itinerary includes stops at the no-man’s-land of wartime France, a Ford factory in America, a colonial outpost in French-ruled Africa, and the suburban slums of Paris. Céline’s prose strips the reader of the illusions bequeathed by the Enlightenment of the invincibility of reason and ineluctability of progress. “Truth,” concludes the narrator, “is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”
We have never been able, in turn, to ignore Céline’s writing. In part, it is a question of his extraordinary life. Céline was an interloper in France’s literary world; like Bardamu, he did not graduate from an elite lycée in Paris but instead from the trenches of World War I; he did not write his works in a Left Bank café but instead in a miserable apartment in the squalid suburb of Clichy; his audience was not, at least at first, bourgeois readers but instead the working poor that, as a doctor, he treated. As a result, Céline may have earned a right to a kind of humane cynicism: