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: 

When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word. When we’ve done that, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit. That’s work enough for a lifetime.

Black and white photo of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Meudon, France
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Meudon, France, ca. 1955. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images.)

Céline’s style is yet another reason he cannot be ignored. In Voyage, Céline’s language remains as dizzying as when the book first appeared in 1932. (The book nearly won the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, but those committee members horrified by the writing slightly outnumbered those hypnotized by it.) Pocked by hundreds of ellipses, Céline’s sentences pulsate with a jazz-like rhythm, riffing in a slang as foreign as Basque to many of his readers. He tosses off dozens of aphorisms, as bleak as they are brilliant: “One way or another, kissing is as indispensable as scratching.” “When you stop to think about it, at least a hundred people must want you dead in the course of an average day.” “Nothing can be explained. The world only knows how to do one thing, to roll over and kill you, as a sleeper kills his fleas.” “Philosophizing is simply one way of being afraid, a cowardly pretense that doesn’t get you anywhere.” “This body of ours, this disguise put on by common jumping molecules, is in constant revolt against the abominable farce of having to endure.” Veering from the philosophical to the scatological, Céline reads like a modern mash-up of Rabelais and La Rochefoucauld. 

There is yet one more reason Céline cannot be ignored—a reason that brings us to the recent controversy in Paris. He was, quite simply, a virulent anti-Semite whose three pamphlets—something of a misnomer, since Bagatelles pour un massacre alone falls just shy of 400 pages—are shocking even by the standards of other anti-Semites. With Bagatelles, Céline promises an “anti-Semitic pedagogy,” presented by the book’s narrator Ferdinand that will reveal how the “Jewish race” controls French finance and politics and has corrupted French culture. In one of Céline’s favorite phrases, France’s proud literary and artistic traditions were becoming fatally “enjuivé,” or “Judaized”—made Jewish. So much so, he exclaims, that “to the French palate . . . Jewish shit is a taste without equal! An ineffable nectar! Verily, an ascension into Heaven!” Consider, Ferdinand prattles, the case of Communist Russia: “As soon as they were in command, the Hymies didn’t waste time in setting about to the decimation of the Aryans . . . Over the past seventeen years, they have had the impure destroyed by the millions . . . The Jews don’t like to see the color of blood? Not their own of course! . . . But that of others, they give themselves a generous view . . . as soon as the occasion presents itself.” 

Unless France acted, declares Ferdinand, her fate would be the same. “You must remember that for a Jew . . . every non-Jew is nothing but an animal! . . . Never anything more . . . The chosen people haven’t yet proceeded to carry out mass executions in our precincts, only the occasional murder. But these matters will not be left to wait much longer.” Time was of the essence: “Once they get a sure grip on our bones, once they’ve softened our good hearts, once they are quite sure they possess us down to our very last leucoplasts, they will transform themselves into despots, the most arrogant and brazen that have ever been seen in all of history.” For this reason, those peoples who “have hung a few of those Jews had good reason . . . Those kikes had best be on their guards. Patience wears out, then disappears . . . pogroms do not come about for nothing!”

 

Céline’s ravings were so relentless that many of his contemporaries dismissed them as a joke. Shortly after the Bagatelles’ publication in 1937, the Nobel Prize laureate (and polite anti-Semite) André Gide insisted that Céline “does his best not to be taken seriously.” Of course, when one notes that Céline includes Racine, Stendhal, the Pope, and Picasso in his list of Jews, Gide’s claim may seem credible. Except, that is, when one recalls the historical context. As the great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain warned soon after the book’s publication, “Today in Europe, there are people who seek the extermination of the Jews. It is this, is it not, that we are discussing?” While this “massacre remains a dream, the germs of hatred filling the air are real.” Maritain’s prediction needed just a half-dozen years—a period spanning Céline’s completion of two more anti-Semitic pamphlets and Hitler’s attempted completion of the Final Solution—to come true. 

Just days after the Allies landed at Normandy, Céline joined the exodus of French collaborators streaming to Germany. After the war, he fled to Denmark, where he remained for six years. In 1951, he returned to France upon learning that he had been amnestied for his acts of collaboration. He died 10 years later, leaving behind a widow, Lucette, and a literary legacy that remains the third rail of French intellectual and political discourse. Increasingly preoccupied during his last years by what the future would say of his past, Céline and his new publisher, Gallimard—his previous publisher, the collaborationist Robert Denoël, was assassinated, perhaps by the Resistance, in 1945—were opposed to republishing the “pamphlets.” It was a decision that Lucette, now 105 years old, and the management of Gallimard—determined to sanitize, if not sanctify Céline—long maintained.

Photograph of a French demonstration with a large banner and flags
Demonstration by the far-right Front National (FN) party against migrants due to arrive in the city of Grambois, La Tour d’Aigues, France, October 23, 2016. The banner reads “No migrants in our villages.” (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier, stock.adobe.com.)

That is, until last year. In December, the radical right-wing magazine L’Incorrect leaked the news that Antoine Gallimard—grandson of Gaston Gallimard, the company’s legendary founder, and current CEO—planned to reissue the pamphlets in 2018. The new edition, it appeared, would also include a preface by Pierre Assouline. It was a canny move by Gallimard: Assouline is a well-known and respected literary journalist who has written several biographies (including one of, yes, Gaston Gallimard). With his name appearing on the cover, Assouline would in turn lend Gallimard cover from the predictable storm of criticism. No doubt Gallimard would be as shocked—shocked!—were he asked if Assouline’s Jewish background played a role in his choice, as he would be if asked whether he was motivated by the strong likelihood that Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets would do a brisk business in contemporary France with both ultranationalist and radical Islamist readers. The ostensible reason, instead, is that Lucette, who is under continuous care and rarely conscious, had a change of heart.

The leak led to a flood of criticism that even Assouline’s good name could not staunch. Most notably, Serge Klarsfeld, the famous Nazi-hunter and founder of the association Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France, appealed to Gallimard to reconsider the project. While this book belonged in libraries, Klarsfeld found it “insupportable” to think that one could find it stocked in bookstores. To those who insisted that enough time has passed, Klarsfeld agreed that “times have changed, but in a very unfavorable way.” Noting the alarming rise of anti-Semitic activity in France, he insisted that the pamphlets, precisely because Céline penned them, are “deadly” and constitute “an act of aggression against us and against French Jews.” 

Klarsfeld’s condemnation of Gallimard’s plans was echoed by other prominent voices. In the newspaper Libération, the essayist Gisèle Berkman declared that “each phrase, each word [in the pamphlets] is a call for murder.” In a context where “anti-Semitism and racism are considered an
opinion like any other, where the ‘Jew’ and ‘money’ are again joined, and Jews are accused of manipulating the world, it is nothing less than sheer dishonesty to declare that these works can be read without consequences.” Upping the ante, the literary scholar Tiphaine Samoyault argued that Céline’s anti-Semitism is not an unfortunate literary quirk but sincere and systemic. In a Le Monde editorial, she declared that she and other scholars have chosen not to teach Céline’s works because “his hateful words are found not just in his pamphlets, and because his anti-Semitism, far from an exception, represents a serious engagement on his part.” 

 

In a nation where, ever since Louis XIV created the Académie française, politics and literature have been so tightly entwined, politicians inevitably piled into the fray. Alexis Corbière, the spokesperson for the extreme-left party La France Insoumise (Defiant France), denounced Gallimard’s plans and noted that hate speech, which includes anti-Semitic utterances, is outlawed. As a result, should these “deliriously anti-Semitic texts” be published, how could the courts forbid the publication of other anti-Semitic declarations? On the far right, Bruno Gollnisch, a pillar of the National Front, was apoplectic. It is hard to imagine, he sneered, that the “scum who fill the Islamic-mafia battalions of ‘our’ suburbs would bother to read French authors to justify anti-Jewish actions.” The irony of Gollnisch’s defense of French Jewry was thicker than a slab of pâté. Ten years ago, Gollnisch was slapped with a three-month suspended sentence and fine of 55,000 euros for questioning the number of Jews killed in the concentration camps, all the while casting doubt upon the existence of the gas chambers.

Weighing in as well was former president Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2011, he had gone on record that “one could like Céline without being an anti-Semite just as one could like Proust without being a homosexual.” Since realizing that Proust never called for the extermination of heterosexuals, Sarkozy now showed greater prudence. After hemming and hawing, he concluded that given the current rash of anti-Semitic sentiment, he “didn’t see the purpose” in reissuing the pamphlets. 

The government, it turned out, was equally skeptical. Shortly after the news leak, Frédéric Potier, director of the cabinet-level office charged with tracking racist and anti-Semitic activities, invited Antoine Gallimard to his office. In the meeting Potier sought guarantees that the book would include a critical apparatus “casting light on the ideological context of these pamphlets” and that historians would be part of this effort. Assouline’s preface, no matter how perceptive, would be inadequate. As for the critical apparatus written for a 2012 Canadian edition of the pamphlets that Gallimard planned to use, it was worse than inadequate. Not only was this edition pallidly titled Ecrits polémiques, but the Canadian publisher, Rémi Ferland, had described the Front National’s Marine Le Pen during last year’s presidential election as “France’s last chance.” Gallimard thanked Potier for his time and told him the pamphlets would be published as planned. 

But Gallimard’s plans proved as airtight as those of the French army in 1940. In an open letter published in the magazine Le Nouvel Obs, more than a dozen internationally recognized specialists in 20th-century history—including Annette Becker, Pierre-André Taguieff, Laurent Joly, Michel Winock, and Jay Winter—declared that this project “cannot be done in haste.” They compared the gravity of the task to the recent publication in Germany of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, noting that more than two-thirds of the latter text was filled with critical annotations and notes. In effect, a scholarly cordon sanitaire had been built around Hitler’s ravings in the implicit hope of attracting only other scholars. In any case, to do anything less with Céline’s pamphlets, the French historians warned, would be unprofessional. Trenchantly, they added it would be unethical for a publisher to earn a profit from the book’s publication. 

In early March, President Emmanuel Macron finally addressed the controversy. At the annual dinner sponsored by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), Macron reminded his audience, which included nearly all of his cabinet ministers, that it was not his role to “judge” the controversy over the pamphlets. But, he continued, he nevertheless had a personal opinion. While he was encouraged by the “adult debate” over the question of publication, Macron declared: “I do not believe we need these pamphlets.” 

By then, though, Gallimard had already retreated. A few weeks before Macron’s speech, the publisher, with majestic understatement, acknowledged that “the methodological and memorial conditions are presently not reunited to calmly envisage publication” of the pamphlets. As a result, he was suspending plans to reissue the texts. At the same time, he insisted that “condemning them to censorship hinders efforts to reveal their roots and ideological reach and cultivates an unhealthy curiosity instead of critical reasoning.” 

It is easy to see that Gallimard’s statement lacks the critical reasoning he pretends to defend. First, it has never been a question of censorship. The pamphlets can be found not just in libraries and used bookstores—including the bouquiniste stalls along the Seine—but also on the Internet, where one can download a PDF in seconds. Besides, the work of examining the literary roots and measuring the ideological reach of these pamphlets has been underway for decades. From Alice Kaplan’s path-breaking work on Céline’s sources for Bagatelles pour un massacre, in which she traced his borrowings from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a variety of other anti-Semitic works, to Pierre-André Taguieff and Annick Durafour’s recent study Céline, le race, le juif, there has been no shortage of scholarly works. (Or for that matter, damning ones: Taguieff and Durafour reveal that Céline denounced a number of French Jews to the Vichy authorities.) Finally, Gallimard’s refusal to issue the pamphlets à la Mein Kampf—namely, with the texts buffered by a solid critical apparatus—would more likely encourage rather than discourage “an unhealthy curiosity.” 

But this last point nevertheless raises a number of questions. How reasonable is the assumption that a full-blown scholarly edition of Céline’s pamphlets would protect innocent readers against its radioactive qualities? After all, 100,000 copies of the new German edition of Mein Kampf, which submerges Hitler’s words in an ocean of commentary, recently rolled off the printing press. It is likely that more than a few of the buyers offered a rationale similar to literary young men in the 1970s justifying their subscriptions to Playboy: They bought it for the footnotes. Why, in fact, do we need a critical edition of Céline’s murderously anti-Semitic ravings at all? As the historian Tal Bruttmann remarked, Céline’s pamphlets, unlike Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is historically unavoidable, hardly deserves such attention. His writings were not a blueprint for a totalitarian state’s war aims, but instead a collage of rancid claims thrown together by a vile man who happened to be a great novelist. What do they tell us—apart, that is, that Céline was an anti-Semite? This is hardly, Bruttmann drily concludes, “a great discovery.”

In the end, it may well be that the claims made by historians no less than Gallimard are beside the point, if the only point is that Céline was, as Bruttmann notes, an anti-Semite. It is a dreary point, a miserable point, but also an uncontroversial point. In fact—and herein lies the rub—Céline’s anti-Semitism can no more be denied than the brilliance and originality of his fiction. In one of the passages from Bagatelles, where Céline states that the Jews can be found gathered at each of France’s catastrophes, roosting like a thousand ravens from Hell, he exclaims: “Cela ne s’invente pas.” You cannot make this stuff up. Of course, Céline and his sources made it all up. Does this mean we, in turn, should continue to make up reasons, no matter how disinterested or austere, for republishing such writings? 

Comments

  1. gershonhepner

    WHAT DOES NOT PREVENT THE PUBLICATION OF THE WRITINGS OF CÉLINE

    Though he included among Jews he hated Stendhal, the Pope, Picasso, and Racine,
    the fact this belle-lettrist was a belligerent belitter
    of facts does not prevent the publication of the hateful writings of Céline
    any more than it has done to those of Adolf Hitler.

    [email protected]

  2. gershonhepner

    WHAT DOES NOT PREVENT THE PUBLICATION OF THE WRITINGS OF CÉLINE

    Though he included among Jews he hated Stendhal, the Pope, Picasso, and Racine,
    the fact this belle-lettrist was a belligerent belitter
    of facts does not prevent the publication of the hateful writings of Céline
    any more than it has done to those of Adolf Hitler.

    [email protected]

  3. farbsom

    "Though he included among Jews he hated Stendhal, the Pope, Picasso, and Racine,
    the fact this belle-lettrist was a belligerent belitter"

    Belle-lettrist is a strange appellation with which to refer to a writer who dreamt of murdering Jews (plural). It's like calling Lysenko, a man of science.

    Puns aside, belitter (as in dreck) would suit him better.

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