A Fine Mess: Should France Pub­lish Cé­line’s Anti-Semitic Writ­ings?

Why should any­one care about a rav­ing, Cro-Magnon pro­pa­gan­dist?

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Ben­jamin Ivry

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

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