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The literature debate tearing apart Paris: should Céline's racist pamphlets be published?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was one of France’s greatest novelists – but plans to republish his anti-Semitic writing has dramatically divided Paris.

On a cold but sunny afternoon in late January I paid a visit to the Passage de Choiseul in the commercial heart of Paris. The passage is a covered arcade, one of many such places that were built across the Right Bank of Paris in the early part of the 19th century, and which were effectively the world’s first shopping malls. The Passage de Choiseul is also one of the most important and totemic sites in French literary history. It was the childhood home of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, arguably the greatest French writer of the 20th century, who still regularly outranks Marcel Proust in readers’ surveys and sales. Most significantly for his admirers, the passage was immortalised by Céline in his two magnificent novels, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Instalment Plan, published in the 1930s. In Céline’s day the place was poor and decrepit and “stank of dogs’ piss”. Nowadays it is expensive and chic. But there is no trace of its most famous literary inhabitant – an extremely unusual fact in France, a country that prides itself on its literature, and where even the meanest provincial town has at least one Avenue Victor Hugo or Lycée Baudelaire.

I bought some pens and a notebook in the upmarket stationery shop just opposite the entrance to number 67, where I knew Céline had lived, and asked the lady behind the counter why there was no trace of the great man. She said that she was often asked this question by Céline’s admirers, who came from all over the world to this place, and that she did not know why there was no commemorative plaque or any other sign that Céline had lived here. She then hesitated, looked around to check that we were alone, and said quietly: “There are many Jews here who control business. They don’t want anyone to remember him.”

There are very good reasons why so many Jews in France still hate Céline. Between 1937 and 1941 he published a series of pamphlets that are made up of the rawest anti-Semitism. In these pamphlets – which look like popular paperbacks, and amount to more than a thousand pages – Céline’s ideas are those common to many prewar French anti-Semites: he rails against Jewish-Bolshevik vermin, sees Jewish conspiracies everywhere, and praises Hitler. But you really have to read the texts up close to feel the full savagery. “A dead million stinking Yids was not worth the fingernail of a single Aryan,” he wrote in 1937. In the 1940s, he declared that the arrival of the Germans in France was a “necessary tonic”. Céline’s only regret by then was that the war had not been devastating enough. Long before the Nazi machinery began to construct the Final Solution, Céline called for the extermination of the Jewish race: “If you really want to get rid of the Jews,” he wrote, “then there are not 36,000 remedies: racism! That’s the only thing the Jews are afraid of: racism! And not a little bit with the fingertips but all the way. Totally, inexorably. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”

I first read these texts nearly 30 years ago, when I was writing an MPhil thesis on Céline at the University of Manchester. I found them shocking then, and all the more shocking on re-reading them now. My thesis supervisor, who was Jewish, said that he couldn’t read them without feeling sick. Though he admired Céline’s work, he said that these writings were pure evil.

Since Céline’s death in 1961, these texts have lingered in a semi-legal limbo. They were never banned but were also never reprinted, and so for a long time they were hard to find and expensive (as a student I bought pirate copies from a shady far-right bookshop on the rue Malebranche in the Latin Quarter). The internet has, of course, changed all that. The pamphlets are now only a few clicks away on the web, and you can even read the ratings on the Goodreads website or find them on Amazon. This easy, even banal, availability is, however, what makes it so hard for an outsider to understand the drama around Céline that has convulsed the French literary world in the past weeks, eventually leading to a dispute between the government and Céline’s publishers.

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The story began quietly enough in early December, when far-right magazine L’Incorrect published a piece explaining that Céline’s widow had finally given permission to republish Céline’s anti-Semitic texts. The response to this was fairly muted, until it was announced in the mainstream media that the texts would be published by Gallimard, the most important publishing house in France, effectively placing Céline’s most violently anti-Jewish writings in the pantheon of great French literature.

This news was met with anger and incredulity from the French Jewish community. Two leading Jewish organisations immediately called on Gallimard to abandon the project. They were joined by the prestigious voice of Serge Klarsfeld, internationally famous for his work in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice and himself a Holocaust survivor. Klarsfeld described the texts as “still dangerous and still murderous”.

The French government was rattled. On 19 December, Antoine Gallimard, the distinguished president of Gallimard, and his editors, including the writer Pierre Assouline, were summoned to give an account of their actions to a government committee. The result was a stand-off during which Gallimard refused to agree that a “literary object” – Céline’s pamphlets – could be reduced to a mere historical footnote and placed in a museum. The government wanted reassurances that the edition would be published with an introduction and annotations signalling to the reader that this was all in the past. Antoine Gallimard did not want to comply. This was not Mein Kampf, he argued, but a work of great artistic value. There could be no question of such censorship. 

Most of all, however, the government was worried that Céline’s writings would encourage the “new anti-Semitism” rife among young Muslims in the banlieues on the edge of the city. The public faces of this anti-Semitism are the comedian Dieudonné and the writer Alain Soral, who have recently openly challenged French laws on Holocaust denial. Assouline, who was to write the preface and who is Jewish, fired back that no one in the banlieues read Céline anyway.

The government committee nervously conceded the point. On 7 January the French prime minister Édouard Philippe weighed in, backing Gallimard and stating that although “there were excellent reasons to hate [Céline], his central place in French literature cannot be denied”. Antoine Gallimard welcomed the statement, saying that “censorship is a way of blocking a clear view of ideologies and leads instead to morbid curiosity”.

Then a few days later, on 11 January, apparently without warning, Antoine Gallimard changed his mind and announced that the whole project of publishing Céline’s pamphlets had been called off. At first no explanation was given, but then Gallimard made a statement saying that he was ending the project because in his judgement the “methodological conditions and the question of memory do not come together in a way that makes this possible”. In other words, he was giving in to the government.

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Louis-Ferdinand Céline became famous suddenly. His first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, was an immediate bestseller on its publication in 1932. This fact was all the more extraordinary because Céline seemed to have come out of nowhere; he belonged to no literary schools and was unknown to the leading intellectuals of the day. Until the publication of the novel he had been working as a doctor in the poorer parts of northern Paris, writing at night in a fever of adrenalin and exhaustion.

The book was a success partly because it was such a page-turner. It is the story of Bardamu, a Chaplinesque anti-hero whose “journey” spans the horrors of the First World War, colonial Africa, New York and Detroit, back to the squalor of the poorest parts of Paris. It is a great picaresque romp, funny, grotesque and frightening in equal measure, satirising the modern world and all its absurdity from war to colonialism to capitalism.

Its most obvious inspiration was Zola, but in fact nobody had ever written a book in French like this before. What really made an impact on Céline’s first readers was the style. The book is written in the first person and delivered in the fast, witty and nasal slang of working-class Paris, often known as le parler parigot. Its politics are a mix of virulent pacifism, anti-capitalism and anarchism. For this reason it was widely admired on the left, and praised by André Gide, Trotsky and Orwell among others. But most importantly for its first Parisian audience, it told the story of Céline’s class and generation in real time and at ground level in the native language of the city. In this sense, Journey to the End of the Night is as Parisian as the songs of Édith Piaf.

This might be well said of the pamphlets too. Interestingly, the first of these, Bagatelles pour un massacre (“Trifles for a massacre”), went on to sell roughly the same amount as Journey to the End of the Night and was seen as a sort of follow-up by Céline’s readership. In its original publicity, it was sold as “something to make you laugh in the trenches”, a comic guide to the coming apocalypse. There is a loose plot featuring the character Ferdinand, who also appears in the semi-autobiographical novel Death on the Instalment Plan. Alongside this, the Bagatelles and other texts contain a good deal of dream-like reflection, trickery and deliberate disorganisation – which is what makes them so literary, even “poetic”, in the mind of Céline’s admirers, many of them on the French left.

The politics of the Bagatelles are an extension of Journey to the End of the Night. The author/narrator is still an anarchist who has no faith in Western civilisation, but this time it is because it is being corroded by the Jews, whose not-so-secret aim is the massacre of the entire French race. In some ways this is typical of French fascist thought and quite the opposite of the scientific rationalism espoused by the Nazis, who sought a “pure society” in the name of a natural order. Instead, Céline’s hatred of Jews is expressed in wild, hallucinatory riffs. It is emotional, irrational, crude and visceral. It is probably the closest thing you will ever read to how the many real, everyday anti-Semites talked in the streets of Paris in the 1930s.

For this reason alone, it is worth reading Céline’s pamphlets, if you have the stomach. If nothing else, they are an invaluable historical document. But what if these “evil” texts also possess literary merit and are not merely propaganda? How then do we read history?

These big questions have been part of the recent debate around Céline in the French media. But the real reason why Gallimard has suspended the Céline project was rather less philosophical: the company realised it was facing an insurmountable combination of public and political pressure.

For weeks, Antoine Gallimard himself received a barrage of threats and insults, which included being called a “Nazi whore”. The tipping point was possibly a private letter from the Israeli ambassador to France, Aliza Bin-Noun, asking him to call the project off. A diplomatic incident loomed when Bin-Noun angrily remarked in public that “anti-Semitism can never be excused just because it comes from a genius”. In the face of all this opposition, Gallimard and Assouline perhaps wearily accepted the project was simply not worth pursuing for now.

***

It first sight, this makes the controversy over Céline not really a censorship issue but more to do with context and timing. More precisely, it has exposed the fact that, far from being confined to the 20th century, anti-Semitism is still an open wound in French society. This is why Serge Klarsfeld said that to publish Céline in the current circumstances would be “an aggression against all the Jews of France”. Klarsfeld argued that because Céline’s literary talent, and therefore his power to persuade, are so much greater than that of Dieudonné or Alain Soral, he is still in the 21st century a truly threatening figure.

Klarsfeld has a point. It is true, for example, that for the past few years anti-Semitism has been thriving in France and that more Jews than ever are leaving for Israel. This has partly been driven by the rise in jihadi attacks, which are often aimed explicitly at Jews. Islamist violence has also been matched, however, by a recent surge of Jew-hatred in French alt-right or neo-Nazi circles, sometimes referred to as the Fachosphère.

Like its UK or American relations, this is a network of blogs, websites, bars and designer outlets where it is now cool to hold extreme right-wing views. To give just one example of how “hipster” anti-Semitism in Paris works: until recently, in a shop in northern Paris you could buy a polo shirt with Céline’s very recognisable face above a red and black logo (mimicking Kentucky Fried Chicken) with his initials: LFC. There is no need to say anything else; the image speaks for itself: this is Céline as the hip emblem of the parigot de souche, the “true white Parisian”. Other items for sale on the still-active website include a hoodie with an emblem of Joan of Arc with a Kalashnikov, and a bomber jacket with a white rat logo (the white rat is an insignia of the Parisian fascist, a code for white supremacy).

What this latest affaire reveals above all is that France is still having problems coming to terms with its past. One of the reasons for this is that in French intellectual and political circles, “culture” and “history” are too often treated as separate categories. The collision between Antoine Gallimard and the French government is a good demonstration of this opposition, with Gallimard insisting on the purity of Céline’s command of language, and the government anxious about Céline’s provocative status as cultural icon.

But, in truth, literature and history are often the same thing. This is why some books can be so hard to read, from the Marquis de Sade to Kafka or, indeed, Céline. To read literature in any other way is to distort our view of history.

Given the dangerous age we live in, it seems more important than ever that we should read not the “good” Céline against the “bad” Céline, but all of his work together – and why not in a Gallimard edition? – to catch his vicious, paranoid, self-pitying fury, and to understand how France went mad in the 1930s. 

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry