A Fine Mess: Should France Publish Céline’s Anti-Semitic Writings?
Why should anyone care about a raving, Cro-Magnon propagandist?
With anti-Semitic violence on the rise in France, now might not seem like the most opportune time to announce a reprint of some of the most violent Jewhating writings of the 20th century. Yet late last year, Les Editions Gallimard, in Paris, declared that this May, three anti-Semitic tracts written by the author Louis-Ferdinand Céline in the 1930s and ’40s would be collected in a single authorized edition for the first time since their initial publication. On January 11, Gallimard announced that the project has been temporarily “suspended.” What intervened to make one of France’s leading publishers reconsider its project?
The Céline volume was meant to include “Trifles for a Massacre,” “School for Corpses” and “A Fine Mess.”
In “Trifles,” Céline wrote: “I feel close friendship for Hitler, for all Germans, I find that they are our brothers, and they are quite right to be racist.” Of Léon Blum, the leftist Jewish prime minister of France, Céline said: “I would prefer a dozen Hitlers to one all-powerful Blum.” The following year, in “School for Corpses,” he wrote that there should be “one single race in France: Aryans!” and added: “Jews, Afro-Asiatic hybrids, one-fourth, onehalf blacks and near-Easterners, fornicators, destructive, have nothing to do with this country. They must piss off. The Jews are here for our misfortune. Jews sank Spain through interbreeding... We will get rid of the Jews, or else we will kill the Jews….”
These rants occupy hundreds of pages with the repeated argument that Jews, as mortal enemies of the French, must be eliminated from France by any and all means. A contemporary reviewer, Régis Michaud, pointed out in the autumn 1938 issue of Books Abroad: “It is difficult to dissociate Celine’s sordid onslaught from Nazi and fascist terrorism. Celine has completely appropriated to himself the terrorist vocabulary and terminology… Celine wants to contribute his bit to a coming pogrom and a blood purge. He, too, wants to destroy the so-called non-Aryans.”
After the war, Céline and his second wife, Lucette Destouches, a dance teacher, always refused to reprint his literary terrorism, which has neverthe-
less been available online. In 2012, Les Éditions Huit, a publisher in Canada, where different copyright rules apply, issued an annotated edition of the three books, under the title “Polemical Writings.” It was reported that the notes, provided by Régis Tettamanzi, a professor of French at the University of Nantes, would be reproduced in the Gallimard edition, along with a preface by Pierre Assouline, a Gallimard author, biographer and literary critic. Assouline is also the first Jewish writer to serve on the prestigious prize-awarding Goncourt Academy.
The high-profile project drew criticism from different sources. Noted Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer, pointed out that French law bans the incitement to racial hatred that Céline’s anti-Semitic writings represent. After Klarsfeld’s intervention, the French government became involved, cautioning Gallimard against issuing an edition too hastily, lest the result be used as it was originally intended, as ferocious anti-Jewish propaganda. Among petitions expressing opposition to the Gallimard project was one co-signed by the French Jewish historian Tal Bruttmann, author of studies on the deportation of French Jews; wartime anti-Semitic laws; how Nazi invaders seized Jewish property in France, and resistance against the German occupants.
As Bruttmann recently explained to the Forward, there was a long-standing tradition of despising Jews among French intellectuals and writers before Céline, who in these books “went even beyond the anti-Semitism of French intellectuals. [Céline] expressed a Nazi anti-Semitism from the first polemic text onward.”
Yet Nazis were not fond of Céline, who accused Adolf Hitler of secretly being Jewish because he was not ridding France of its Jews fast enough. In his diary for December 1941, the German novelist Ernst Jünger, at that time a Nazi officer, noted that for two hours, Céline ranted to him that German soldiers should “shoot, hang, exterminate the Jews.” Céline recommended that Jews be rooted out “neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house. If I carried a bayonet. I’d know what has to be done.” In reaction to this vehemence, Jünger referred to Céline as a “Stone Age Man.” The notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, a Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police, would occur a little more than six months later.
Why should anyone care about a raving, Cro-Magnon propagandist? Céline also had literary talent, and is often mentioned with Marcel Proust among leading 20th-century novelists in France. Céline stands alone in the brutality of his merciless verbal ingenuity in “Journey to the End of Night” and “Death on the Installment Plan.” These novels are rife with scatological puns and obscene coinings of new words to express themes, from the folly of war to the grotesqueness of intimate human relations. Some readers find Céline’s shockingly funny colloquial vehemence to be in the rude, rollicking tradition of François Rabelais.
But why reprint the hate literature now? Céline’s wife, Destouches, born in 1912, still occupies their home in Meudon, a suburb of Paris (the writer died in 1961). Last December, her lawyer, François Gibault, told Bibliobs website that after the successful reprint in 2015 of the writings of Lucien Rebatet, another French anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator, Destouches became convinced that the time was finally right to reprint her husband’s so-called “polemical writings” in France.
Tal Bruttmann cautions against seeing Rebatet as a precedent. Before reprinting “Debris,” which proclaimed Rebatet’s admiration for Nazism and his hatred for Jews, Bruttmann notes that the new edition’s publisher, Robert Laffont, “consulted historians and made unpublished documents available, with much care.” He adds that Rebatet’s work is “much more interesting as a historic document than Céline’s antiSemitic writings.”
“With the Gallimard project, everything was done as if this were about normal texts, purely literary documents which only had literary resonance,” Bruttman said. “It isn’t a normal project, but very symbolic of an ultraviolent anti-Semitism.” Bruttmann also said that the responsibility to introduce these texts was given to Pierre Assouline,“who is a specialist of literature, as if it were a normal project. It’s the exact opposite of what the Germans did [in 2016] when they republished ‘Mein Kampf,’ with all the most serious historians becoming involved.”
Bruttmann says he is concerned about what he calls the “testimony of a rav- ing madman being published by the greatest literary publisher. These things would never be considered publishable unless they were signed by Céline… just the expression of virulent antiSemitism, page after page.” The lawyer François Gibault has already responded to the controversy by announcing that “we will publish the polemical texts by Céline when we are ready.”
But perhaps it would be best if the resulting volume would be called “Anti-Semitic Writings” instead of “Polemical Writings.”
“Polemic means people can be for or against something,” Bruttman said. “We have to call a spade a spade. These are anti-Semitic writings. We might also call them ‘The Adventures of Mickey Mouse’ but that’s not what the book is; it’s the anti-Semitic writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.”
STONE AGE MAN: Some find humor in Céline’s grotesque and scatological writing. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS