Anti-Semite, Nazi sympathiser, great novelist?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline's bitter legacy.

It's nearly fifty years since the death of one of France's greatest 20th century novelists: Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches, more commonly known under his nom de plume, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. And yet there will be no officially sanctioned celebration for the author of Journey to the End of the Night and North. It has been decided by the Culture Minister, after strong protests from France's Jewish community, that Céline will not be commemorated in the official French cultural celebrations for 2011.

On Friday evening, the French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand stated:

After a period of sustained reflection ... I have decided not to include Céline in this year's national celebrations. This is in no sense to be taken as a disavowal of the Senior Committee's choices (who decide upon the list) but as an adjustment that I have made myself.

This was the end to a week of literary and political controversy. When it became clear last Wednesday that the committee were set to include Céline amongst the list of cultural luminaries to be honoured, the President of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deported French Jews (FFDJF) , Serge Klarsfeld reacted immediately: "It would be an honourable act, if the Culture Minister were to remove Céline from the list immediately, as we have been requesting." He went on to comment that: "His (Céline's) authorial talent should not make us forget that this was a man who called for the murder of Jews under the occupation. If the Republic celebrates him, it will bring shame upon itself."

Henri Godard, one of France's leading Céline scholars, greeted Mitterand's announcement on Friday with dismay, saying that he felt "completely trapped by this about turn" and added sardonically "I thought that we had changed, that the ghosts had been laid to rest. The term of celebration is mistaken. This is not a question of a hagiography, or arranging a memorial, but about using this anniversary in order to look at Céline's writing, which is more and more widely read, afresh."

The central point of contention in this controversy is the existence of a number of violently anti-Semitic tracts that Céline wrote in the late 1930s, amongst which his notorious 1938 pamphlet School of Corpses is most well known. Serge Klarsfeld has claimed that it is impossible to square this explicit anti-Semitism with the words in the preface to the list of cultural figures to be celebrated, which state that this is "a list of individuals worthy of celebration: that is to say, those whose life, work, moral conduct and the values which they have represented are recognised today as having been remarkable."

The controversy demonstrates that France still struggles to reconcile itself with its legacy of prevalent cultural and political anti-Semitism prior to 1945. It remains haunted by events such as the appalling round up of some 13,000 French Jews at the Vélodrome d'Hiver in Paris in July 1942, as was demonstrated by the success of Roselyne Bosch's mediocre commerative film La Rafle (The Round Up) in France last year. Yet is the failure to recognise the work of one of France's greatest authors of the last century really going to help to heal these enduring historical wounds? Céline's reaction to the controversy would no doubt have been typically taciturn. He might have responded in those world-weary tones of Ferdinand, the protagonist of Journey to the End of the Night, and distainfully defered to his prefered retort of "chacun son genre" ("to each their own way".)

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism