by Mitchell Abidor
YOU CAN OPEN almost any page of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Bagatelles pour un massacre and find a passage like this one: “You always have to be wary of Jews, even when they’re dead.” Or this one, about Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution: “In Russia, the kikes, as soon as they assumed command, didn’t exactly wear mittens when they decimated the Aryan.” In 1932, the same Céline had published Journey to the End of the Night, one of the classics of the 20th century, a novel that received near universal praise, including from Léon Trotsky, who said that with this book Céline “[W]alked into the pantheon of great literature like a man walks into his living room.” In 1937, with Bagatelles, he was embarking on a second career, that of antisemitic pamphleteer, writing three “pamphlets” (L’Ecole des cadavres (1938) and Les Beaux draps (1941) would follow) that have rightly darkened his name.
The great novelist (1894-1961) was a central actor in French antisemitism. He befriended and supported the most unsavory figures of French politics and racist pseudo-science of the late 1930s, as well as the Nazi Occupation. During this latter period, he would see the his dream of the elimination of the Jews from French life become possible. The extreme nature of his views is revealed by stories from the period like this one: In 1941, at a dinner, he would tell the German officer and novelist Ernst Jünger that “He is surprised, shocked that [you] soldiers don’t execute, don’t hang, don’t exterminate the Jews — he’s shocked that someone having a bayonet at his disposal doesn’t make unlimited use of it.” This was too much for the officer in the occupying army, who left the room rather than remain with a man who could express these ideas. Jünger, it should be pointed out, had served on the Eastern Front, and so was no stranger to the horrors his country was capable of. But Céline went too far even for him. In the same way his monomania concerning the Jews was excessive in the eyes of the author and journalist Robert Brasillach, the sole French intellectual to be executed for his writings during the war. Brasillach mocked Céline: “The Jews, the Jews everywhere, in a monotonous, gigantic obsession . . .His obsessive fear of Semites causes him to see Jews everywhere. Critics? All Jews or Jewified! Famous authors? All Jews! Cezanne? A Jew! Racine? A Jew! . . . The pope, the Church, priests? All Jews! The kings of France? ‘Don’t you think they have funny noses?’”
It is hardly surprising that Céline’s pamphlets were huge bestsellers during the war. Bagatelles sold 33,000 copies during the conflict (after selling over 41,000 copies in its first two years after publication), and Les Beaux draps 36,000, consuming enormous amounts of the paper carefully rationed by the Nazis (in fact, 25 percent of that allocated to his publisher went to Céline’s works), paper they gladly released to Céline’s publisher so these antisemitic works could be made available. Admirers of Céline the novelist have long had a tendency to downplay the depth and centrality of Jew-hatred to his worldview, although any serious reader of his correspondence or the pamphlets should not be able to doubt this for a second. It has become all but impossible to ignore with the publication in 2017 of Céline, la race, le Juif by Annick Durrafour and Pierre-André Taguieff, a 1,200-page indictment of Céline, his antisemitism, and the Celinophiles who have covered for him. There is no disputing Durrafour and Taguieff when they write that in his antisemitic works “there can be found no nuance in the attacks and accusations, which recognize no exceptions: in them all Jews embody the cursed figure of ‘the Jew.’ Nothing is demonstrated in them but hatred, contempt, fear, and a phobia mixed with repulsion.”
CELINE’S PAMPHLETS have been officially out of print since the end of World War II, though they can be easily found on the internet, and pirate copies were long readily available in fascist bookstores and can still be found on the website of the largest French bookstore chain, the FNAC. They were out of print not for legal reasons, but because Céline’s widow Lucette chose for them to remain unavailable. But at age 105, Lucette decided to allow them to be reissued. A firestorm ensued, and in January the publisher, Antoine Gallimard, canceled the project, stating that “In the name of my liberty as a publisher and my sensitivity to my epoch I am suspending this project, judging that the methodological and memorial conditions do not exist to peacefully envision it.” This after Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld deemed the publication “an aggression against the Jews of France,” and threated a lawsuit, and the representative organization of French Jewry, CRIF, called them “an unbearable incitement to antisemitic and racist hatred.” The Israeli ambassador to France also issued a protest against their publication, and the publishing house had been bombarded with insults and threats.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had already entered the fray, saying that “I do not fear the publication of these pamphlets,” adding they had to be accompanied by a critical apparatus. In fact, last December the government, in a fairly extraordinary move, had questioned the demanded guarantees from the publisher that such an apparatus would accompany the work.
In 2012, the Québécois publishing house Éditions 8 published a scholarly edition of the pamphlets, accompanied by a formidable critical apparatus, and such was to be the case with the Gallimard edition, which also included a prefatory note by the Jewish author and critic Pierre Assouline. In defending his proposed publication of the works, Antoine Gallimard said that “Céline’s pamphlets belong to the vilest history of French antisemitism. But condemning them to censorship hinders the full exposure of their ideological roots and impact and creates unhealthy curiosity precisely where only our faculty of judgment should be exercised.”
These reasons alone underline the shortsightedness of the official French Jewish opposition to publication of these books. But examination of the case reveals further absurdities.
In the case of Céline himself, his correspondence has been available for many years in various editions, and the prestigious Pleiade collection published a selection of his letters in 2009, many of which are as vicious and hate-filled as the pamphlets, in fact, more so. The pamphlets are unreadable for many reasons relating to their style, which is full of neologisms, outdated slang, and Céline’s fractured syntax. As Pierre Assouline, the prefacier of the volume, said at a meeting with the government on the publication, Céline is not very much read in the immigrant suburbs that are the center of French antisemitism.
Without the footnotes they are all but incomprehensible. His letters however, are clearly written, and in their calls for the arrest of Jews, their informing on supposed Jews, their warnings of the Jewish threat, their paranoiac rants about the Jewish source of everything evil, they are every bit as dangerous as the pamphlets. Yet you can walk into any well-stocked bookstore and purchase them
ALTHOUGH Céline’s pamphlets were bestsellers under the Germans, the bestseller, Lucien Rebatet’s Les Decombres (The Rubble), was re-published by a commercial publisher just a couple of years ago to little opposition, and its first printing sold out in days. It is a book every bit as base as Céline’s pamphlets, by a man who remained an unrepentant fascist till the end days, and yet again, there was little uproar, and more importantly, nor did it result in a growth of antisemitism. Céline’s books, had they been published, would have had no effect on the climate in France, being too obscure, too dated, and in all likelihood too expensive to move the dial on antisemitism.
Les Decombres was very much a book of its time, a book that explains what the fascist right considered France’s decline, which led to its defeat in 1940. It’s full of attacks on Léon Blum, hardly a topic of conversation today, but also full of both time- and site-specific antisemitism, as well as the eternal variety.
This is precisely the case for publication of Céline’s three pamphlets, the rantings of an antisemitic psychopath aimed at explaining the French condition of his time as the fault of the Jews and the Freemasons. They are the product of a time and country where it could be said, in the Chamber of Deputies when Léon Blum assumed the role of head of state, as it was by Xavier Vallat (future commissioner for Jewish Questions under Vichy): “Your assuming power, Mr. President of the Council, is uncontestably a historic date. For the first time this old, Gallo-Roman country will be governed by a Jew.”
Blocking publication, however, served the interests of those who defend Céline, saying that his antisemitism was so mad it can’t be serious, that it is a form of satire. Once one has worked through the pamphlets’ obscurity, there is no mistaking that the author is saying just what he means. In them, Céline is revealed for the utter “salaud” he was. Blocking them has also prevented any discussion of the nature of French antisemitism when it was truly a threat, though never let it be forgotten that despite antisemitism’s place in French politics from the 1890s though the end of World War II, it was only under Nazi occupation that it had a real effect. These pamphlets are an essential part of French history and literature, as grim a thought as that might be. Klarsfeld, and those who supported him, hinder any discussion of these facts of the Jewish past in France.
The campaign to block publication also laid bare a significant French hypocrisy when it comes to racism: the fact that Islamophobe writings are freely available, while a Jewish campaign manages to scupper a perfectly respectable publication project. The Jewish place in French society is not that of 1930s and 1940s France (though again, France had a Jewish head of state in 1936, something we will likely not see for many generations here in the U.S.), yet the fragility of that place is exaggerated beyond any relation to reality by Zionists of the worst stripe like Israel’s president, and by professionals of Jewish fear like Klarsfeld.
France does not have a First Amendment, but defending the right to publish whatever can find readers should be unquestioned in the country of the Rights of Man. No group should be able to pressure a publisher into withdrawing a book.
It’s not irrelevant to cross the Rhine and note that Mein Kampf, after being banned in Germany since the war, was published in a scholarly edition just last year. No book is more famously an incitement to hatred than Hitler’s, and yet it was published with little difficulty. It’s all but impossible to trace any deaths to Céline’s works (though the French fascist and collaborator Pierre-Antoine Cousteau — brother of the undersea filmmaker — claimed that many young Frenchmen who fought for the French units of the SS were inspired by Celine’s books), which is certainly not the case with Mein Kampf. No one has dared stay that the electoral success of the far-right AfD was a result of this publication. Much as those of us of a literary bent might like things to be otherwise, a book is a weak thing when it does not have a state behind it, and Céline’s pamphlets would not have imperiled a single French Jew. Instead, a portion of French freedom has been closed down.
As an article on the affair in the French newsweekly L’Express said, their publication would show the pamphlets for what they are: “lengthy, filthy, repetitive and, to tell the truth, boring texts.” Their banning allows them to maintain their aura of forbidden fruit.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. His May Made Me: An Oral History of 1968 in France, has just been published in England and is about to appear in the U.S.. His latest translation is Daniel Guérin’s For a Libertarian Communism. Two of his translations, about the Paris Commune and French anarchists of the 1890s, are available at our Pushcart.