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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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