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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era