Should a country celebrate the work of one of its most venerated writers of the 20th century, even if he was also notorious as a vociferous anti-Semite?
That's the dilemma French officials struggled with last week, as they readied to honor Journey To the End of Night author Louis-Ferdinand Céline amid objections they'd be paying tribute to an unrepentant Nazi supporter. When I read Céline, a man of contradictions, his work gobsmacked me. As a doctor he treated the poor, prostitutes and worked almost exclusively with the underserved. His life was a maze of contradictions yet his novels are amazing. He grew up in the Passage Choiseul, near the Palais Royal, in a mezzanine space above his parents shop of which he writes scathingly. The son of shopkeepers, he left school, travelled, did odd jobs but later passed stringent entrance exams and put himself through medical school. No mean feat in France.
But the controversy erupted last week when French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld went public with his hostility to an annual event celebrating figures from France's cultural pantheon that, this year, includes Céline. I posted about Serge Klarsfeld's work last year, http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2010/10/vichy-past.html
Journey To the End of Night remains one of the most translated books on the planet, and Céline's status as one of the most influential authors in the past 100 years remains intact. However, Klarsfeld maintains it's impossible to separate the artistic accomplishments of a man who, elsewhere, used those same talents to write ferociously anti-Semitic screeds--and whose support of the Nazis and flight to Hitler's Germany earned him a prison term and stamp of “national disgrace” from a post-war French court.
"Céline's anti-Semitism is a discredit to him as a both man and as a writer…(and) his talent must not allow us forget the man who called for the killing of Jews during the Occupation,” Klarsfeld said on Jan. 20, when he called for Céline to be stricken from the event the following afternoon. “The Republic must respect its principles.”
Richard Prasquier, president of the umbrella organization assembling most of France's Jewish movements concurred: “This writer spent the last years of his life in anti-Semitic madness. I can understand him being the object of a colloquium, but not a national celebration.”
By noon Friday in Europe, it appeared French government and cultural officials were intent on retaining Céline in the ceremony when it would begin last Friday despite protests. The reason? Though the author's hateful anti-Semitism is indisputable, Céline experts such as Sorbonne professor Henri Godard argue what's being honored is the equally incontestable mark his legitimate work left on French and global literature. Ignoring that, he contends, would be a similar denial of his place in literary history as turning a blind eye to his infamy as an anti-Semite would be in examining his entire life.
Though that sounds convincing to some, it now seems clear whether Céline remains among the French artists honored Friday afternoon or is pulled at the last minute, the controversy surrounding the event means no one attending will feel much like celebrating. Celine is also the author of three pamphlets violently anti-Semitic, including his widow, still alive, refuses to reissue since the end of the war.
Quite the paradox is Louis-Ferdinand Celine - 1894-1961 - since he's often considered the greatest French writer of the twentieth century with Marcel Proust. In 1962, a year after his death, the anthology of Lagarde and Michard, bible for generations of students, already summed it all: "The hatred that were thrown into excess: Bagatelles pour un massacre (1938), Ecole corpses (1939), Fine Linen (1941), have they ever disfigured the face of Celine?
"One can love Céline without being an anti-Semite as one can love Proust without being a homosexual!" French President Nicolas Sarkozy quipped during a visit to India in 2008. While Sarkozy’s reasoning was peculiar, it nonetheless reflected a dilemma that many lovers and caretakers of French literature wrestle with: how, and even whether, to honour the late author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Half a century later, the disorder remains intense. Céline's still in the center of controversy. In the NYReview of Books Wyatt Mason has a penetrating article on uncovering Celine that goes into depth http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jan/14/uncovering-celine/