On Céline - Alice Kaplan in NYRB:
‘What do students need to know about an author’s life? The Drycleaner wasn’t cleaning up Céline’s record exactly, but he was presenting us with a shiny literary masterpiece and putting aside the rabid anti-Semitism of a writer who is regularly heralded as one of the “greats” of twentieth-century French literature.
“Rabid anti-Semitism” doesn’t begin to describe Céline’s racist writings—on the Jewish nose, for example, in Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre, 1937): Their nose, the “toucan” beak of the swindler, the traitor, the felon…the sordid schemes, the betrayals, a nose that points to, lowers toward, and falls over their mouths, their hideous slots, that rotten banana, their croissant, their filthy kike grins, boorish, slimy, even in beauty pageants, the very outline of a sucking snout: the Vampire…. It’s pure zoology!… Elementary!… It’s your blood these ghouls are after! This isn’t without literary technique: Céline takes ordinary racist stereotypes, adds an enormous amount of verbal energy and extended metaphor, and crowns his insults with an incongruous nod to beauty pageants. In occupied France, even some of the Nazis thought he was a bit too much.’
‘If the case of Céline is so painful, it’s due in part to the promise of his beginnings. The French romance with him started with the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit. A road novel that takes its nihilistic hero, Ferdinand Bardamu, from the trenches of World War I to Africa, New York, Detroit, and back home to the poor suburbs of Paris, it missed winning France’s major literary prize, the Goncourt, by a few votes, and won the Renaudot instead. Leon Trotsky wrote that Céline had “walked into great literature as other men walk into their own homes.”
I still love teaching Voyage au bout de la nuit, for its condemnation of war and colonialism and for its bittersweet hymn to New York:
Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we’d seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifyingly stiff.
The scene is rhythmic, and beautiful, and part of the DNA of my literary life. And for any understanding of twentieth-century French literature, Céline and Proust are the bookends: Proust’s slowed-down sentences; Céline’s speeding “emotional metro.” The opposition works ideologically as well. Proust, half Jewish, was a champion of the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason; Céline, whose father read to him from Édouard Drumont’s anti-Semitic bible La France juive (1886) at the dinner table, was anti-Dreyfus. Proust, the bourgeois, dined with the aristocracy; Céline, the ordinary guy, slummed in the impoverished suburbs. One loved complicated syntax; the other, slang. Together, for better or for worse, they’re France.’
‘Mort à crédit was a critical failure—the antithesis of art, wrote the critic Robert Brasillach in the royalist right-wing daily L’Action française. The left, which had championed Voyage au bout de la nuit for its critique of war and colonialism, didn’t come to Céline’s rescue; perhaps it was distracted by the victory of the Popular Front. He had very few defenders, and he was furious. His first anti-Semitic pamphlet appeared a year later. But it always strikes me as odd that people attribute Céline’s radical anti-Semitism to disappointment over a poorly received novel, as though he had discovered it all of a sudden, when it had been with him since earliest childhood.’
‘I remember Godard opening Bagatelles pour un massacre and pointing to the quotations, some from anti-Semitic propaganda and others from so-called “Jewish” writers who were quoted and misquoted in that propaganda. The book is a compendium of racist drivel, medieval tales, even snippets of librettos for imagined ballets, all glued together by Céline’s unmistakable storytelling and orchestrated by a narrator responding with outrage to what he’s been reading in the papers. It begins: “Ah! say there!…come take a peek!… Take a look at my newspaper!…how they speak of you!… Ah! you still haven’t read it?…” She underlined the passage for me with her finger…Ah! how they set you up! She was totally jubilant about it…as happy as possible… “You are Céline, aren’t you?…” So off I went for my crash course in the dark side of literary history. When I see the dry encyclopedia I compiled on Céline’s hideous culture referred to kindly by colleagues as my “pioneering study,” it occurs to me that a young American professor with a Jewish-sounding name was the perfect person to sign that compendium of hatred, since she wasn’t likely to be accused of being attracted to the sources. France needed an outsider to give Céline studies a kosher stamp. But that’s not exactly right. I was drawn to the topic. The child of a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who died when I was seven, I was mimicking my lost father the only way I knew how—by reading. Whatever zeal I brought to the task was complicated and tormenting, for I sensed that my literary Nuremberg was heading toward a hung jury. By identifying his plagiarism, I was condemning his affinities, but wasn’t I also making Bagatelles a little bit less Céline’s?’
‘During the Nazi occupation Céline reissued his pamphlets from the 1930s and wrote another, even more virulent one, Les Beaux Draps. He wrote letters to the editors of the most extreme collaborationist newspapers, attended the sinister Institute for the Study of Jewish Questions, ingratiated himself with the occupiers. In a letter to the fascist newspaper Je suis partout, he proclaimed, “Total fanatic racism or death!”
By the time the Nazis withdrew from Paris in 1944, Céline had fled as well, fearing arrest. From his exile in Denmark, he wrote a memorandum to be used in his defense at his treason trial in absentia:
I do not remember having written a single anti-Semitic line since 1937. Besides, I never at any time by a single line incited anti-Semitic prosecution. I did protest against the action of certain Jews who were pushing us into war. That is quite different.
He argued that his racism was strategic, that he was merely a patriotic pacifist in the years before World War II. “I am probably the only well-known French writer who has remained strictly, jealously, fiercely, a writer and nothing but a writer without compromise,” he added. In 1951 he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, deprived of civil rights, and fined 50,000 francs, with confiscation of half his assets. Two months later, he was amnestied by a military tribunal and returned to France.’
‘Céline’s support from American writers is one of the odder twists in this tale of adulation and excoriation. A group that included Henry Miller; Joseph Cornell, a lawyer; and Milton Hindus, a young Jewish professor of literature at Brandeis, circulated a petition on his behalf while he was in prison in Denmark awaiting possible extradition. Miller claimed to have read Journey to the End of the Night in galley proofs and to have been so inspired by it that he rewrote Tropic of Cancer under its influence. Hindus was rebelling against the Marxism of his youth. He hoped to find in Céline the ultimate justification for the New Criticism: a language so rich and inventive that you would forgive its author any beliefs or actions. He went to Denmark to consolidate his bond with the exiled writer. The two soon began to argue about the war, about the Jews, about the death camps. In his book about the visit, The Crippled Giant (1950), Hindus wrote, “Céline is as tightly packed with lies as a boil is with pus.”
Hindus’s disgust notwithstanding, from the late 1950s to the 1970s Céline was a vital part of American literary culture. James Laughlin of New Directions purchased rights to the first two novels, and Ralph Manheim—the translator of Mein Kampf, Günter Grass, and Bertolt Brecht—breathed new life into Death on the Installment Plan (1966) and Journey to the End of the Night (1983). In 1958 William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg visited Céline in the ramshackle house in the Parisian suburb of Meudon where his wife gave dance lessons and he tended his domestic animals and worked on his postwar trilogy. Bruce J. Friedman included Céline in his anthology Black Humor (1965), along with Terry Southern, John Barth, and others. In 1975 Kurt Vonnegut wrote an enthusiastic preface for Manheim’s translation of Castle to Castle:
In my opinion, he discovered a higher and more awful order of literary truth by ignoring the crippled vocabularies of ladies and gentlemen and by using, instead, the more comprehensive language of shrewd and tormented guttersnipes.
Every writer is in his debt, and so is anyone else interested in discussing lives in their entirety. By being so impolite, he demonstrated that perhaps half of all experience, the animal half, had been concealed by good manners. No honest writer or speaker will ever want to be polite again.
Vonnegut gets at something essential here: Céline was exposing a repressed voice in French letters, the voice of an angry lower-middle class wedged between the proletariat and the grand bourgeoisie. When Philip Roth said, in a much-quoted interview, that he read Céline despite the anti-Semitism and despite what a horrible person Céline was (“Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice”), he was expressing a gratitude similar to Vonnegut’s.’
‘Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, a former literary journalist from the newspaper Libération who had no particular connection to Céline, disclosed that for fifteen years he had held a huge cache of his manuscripts—presumably the pages that Céline had always claimed were stolen from him when he fled his apartment in Montmartre in 1944: Casse-Pipe (Canon-Fodder), Londres (London), La Légende du roi Krogold (The Legend of King Krogold), Guerre, Mort à credit, Guignol’s Band I. Six thousand pages, worth millions on the literary marketplace. (The manuscript of Voyage au bout de la nuit was bought by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2001 for €1.82 million.)’
‘Philippe Roussin, who has weighed in with lucidity on each of these scandals, points out that anti-Semitism and revisionism have found their way even into this so-called “purely literary” scandal, by way of a single word that appears, unquestioned, in accounts of it: “stolen.” Again and again, reports in the press accepted Céline’s myth that he had been robbed of his precious manuscripts by enemies whom he described variously as Jews and Resistance fighters and Gaullists. That isn’t what happened. After he fled with the defeated Vichy government to Germany, his empty apartment was requisitioned. Yvan Morandat, a leader in the Resistance and member of the provisional French government in Algiers, occupied it, and Céline was informed. From his exile in Denmark, he wrote to Milton Hindus in 1947 that “Morandat…threw three of my novels in progress in the trash.” When Céline was amnestied and returned to France in 1952, he asked Morandat to give him back his possessions. Morandat had moved them into storage. He told Céline he could pay the storage bill to get them back. Céline never did, and his manuscripts eventually reached the person who transmitted them to Thibaudat. Roussin quotes a preliminary version of Féerie pour une autre fois (Fable for Another Time), drafted in Denmark, in which Morandat becomes “Colonel Moses” and the apartment is pillaged by hordes: “A good hundred of them… liberators, purgers, passed through… The most recent one, a certain Colonel Moses, conceived a child in my bed.” The petty story encapsulates classic Céline moves: any threat becomes a Jewish threat, Jews and Gaullists are indistinguishable enemies, and his own negligence becomes proof of his eternal victimhood, what Roussin calls elegantly la thèse victimaire.’
‘Regis Tettamanzi, who published an annotated edition of the pamphlets in Canada (where Céline’s work has entered the public domain), has argued for their republication in France. In his view, the separation between pamphlets and novels is arbitrary; there are pages of magnificent writing scattered even in a text as hideous asBagatelles pour un massacre. Therefore, he concludes, the pamphlets need to be integrated into the complete works. Tettamanzi certainly wants his own annotations of the pamphlets to appear in France, but his argument, Sapiro points out, is not without merit: the power exercised by editors to delineate what is and isn’t a writer’s work is a form of censorship.
In the case of Céline, it’s time to combine the aesthetic and the moralist reading. It comes down to a question of continuity—continuity of intention and continuity of character. The racist pamphlets are the place where we come to understand Céline’s sociopathology, which traverses all his writing, from Voyage on. He is the great literary master of externalized blame, whose trick is always to reach out and bite his reader. And his readers are still willing to be bitten.’
‘Whatever you might say about characterizing Germany and France as “Christian nations” (a phrase that could have been written under Vichy), to present Céline as merely an antiwar witness to World War II is preposterous. “The past is a bitch,” he writes in one of the more revealing passages of Guerre, “it melts into reveries. It takes on little melodies on the way, that no one asked for. It comes back to you, gussied up in tears and regrets as it wanders. It isn’t serious.” With 150,000 copies in bookstores since its publication on May 5, Guerre may be the first Céline book read by a generation that lacks the background for understanding what’s at stake. It is serious.’
Read the article here.
150.000 copies sold of ‘Guerre’ in France, that’s serious indeed.
As with Céline. Its seems that there is hardly a case to be made against his behavior.
He was not violent, he never raped, he never killed, he wrote vehemently antisemitic prose. In other words, it’s all about his writings, but writing is not innocent. As Kaplan writes: ‘Continuity of intention and continuity of character.’
That authors like Vonnegut and especially Roth were attracted by Céline doesn’t come as a surprise, First of all his style deserves praise, even his antisemitic diatribes arrogance according to this article, just read the quotes, are not written by man without any talent.
And there is the slightly perverse pleasure to take a liking to a man and books who despised, to say it euphemistically, your people.
Alica Kaplan’s solution seems reasonable. Do not publish Céline’s antisemitic pamphlets. Even though ‘there are pages of magnificent writing scattered even in a text as hideous as Bagatelles pour un massacre.’
The artist doesn’t need to be a saint. And the art doesn’t compensate for all sins and missteps of the artist, so we can read the novels by Céline, enjoy the novels, as far as that is possible, without forgetting who he was.
That’s a hard task. After all, forgetfulness comes by itself, but very often it’s organized by states, political parties, newspapers, organizations, they alle believe that a certain forgetfulness will serve them well.