Monday, January 24, 2011

What the French were obsessing about last week

Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Louis-Ferdinand Celine

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,

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

Update - Mitterand the minister of Cultural Affairs, and no stranger to controversy himself over the 'novel' he wrote in the 90's concerning tourist pedophiles in Thailand, has stricken Celine from the list.
Cara - Tuesday


  1. "Journey to the End of the Night" was one of the only worthwhile books I had the good sense to read when I was in college -- at a rather heavily Jewish university, no less. Of course, having the book on a curriculum does not imply nearly the endorsement that presence at an official occasion such as this one would.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. I have been thinking about this post all day.

    There would not be a controversy if he had renounced his antisemitism. He was labeled a "national disgrace" and the passage of time and the length of his life don't change that.

    As a writer, he may be outstanding. As a human being, he placed himself outside the pale and deserves no honor.

    If Josef Mengele had discovered a cure for cancer while he was conducting experiments on twins, would he have received a Nobel Prize?


  3. I actually disagree with Beth this time. I think we should be capable of acknowledging the genius of Celine's work while simultaneously condemning his anti-Semitism. Many great artists have been beasts of one kind or another -- Picasso was certainly a lifelong misogynist. But if the artist's faults aren't at the center of his work, I think we should be able to celebrate the work.

  4. Did Picasso encourage other misogynists to kill women? Celine collaborated with the occupiers, supporting them as they deported Jews to the camps.

    Mel Gibson made some very good movies. He rose as high as anyone in that industry can go. Then he proved himself to be an anti-Semite. His career is over because people can't separate him from his hate.

    Do cable channels even run his old movies? He will never be forgiven for his drunken rant. Should he be?


  5. I think it's a really fundamental question: is good art separate from the life of the person who created it? Celine may have been a loathesome wretch but his anti-Semitism is not at the core of his work. If Mel Gibson made an anti-Semitic movie (and certainly his rant makes me think about taking another look at his Jesus movie), I'd call it rotten and corrupt art, even if Gibson himself had been a tolerant saint in his personal life.

    I think real art exists independent of its creator. In "The Recognitions," Wyatt Gywon says, "An artist is just the rubble that follows his work around."

    And by the way, I hate Celine and find him completely unreadable.

  6. I appreciate all of you; Peter, Beth and Tim for thinking hard and commenting here.
    And to me this kind of dialogue would never have happened in the US or France 10 or 15 years ago. This issue wouldn't even have come up or made newspaper headlines because the shame and stain of the past Occupation wasn't spoken of. Members of Vichy, like Rene Bosquet, had held high governmental posts and a lid was put over people's collaboration. Chirac's speech in 1995 publicly acknowledging France's complicity and treatment of the Jewish population cracked open the way for a painful examination and the Matteoli Commission which in the early 2000's almost 60 years after Liberation began restitution to Jewish families for material possessions. It took that long. The Swiss Banks, I believe not sure exactly, took until 2000 to open the unclaimed bank accounts dormant since 1939. I'm not vindicating Céline and the point Tim makes about art being independent of the creator also to me me points to the climate existing at the time.
    I read Death on the Installment Plan when I was writing Murder in the Sentier since Passage Choiseul, where Céline set his story, was and is in the Sentier. I read every fiction and non-fiction book I could about that area. The scathing he showed for the working class and the poor, who he later treated exclusively, boggled my mind. Thank you all for giving such thought and your considered opinions,

  7. I agree with Beth on this post. Picasso was a misogynist; he didn't advocate saying women were all inferior and should all be exterminated, and then advocate their brutal genocidal extermination.

    Also, I think Jewish people deserve to be heard and have a strong say in this, as African-American people have a right to have a say in the U.S. about writers who were pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy.

    The French establishment can't just ignore what Jewish people say, as they speak for those who were the victims of genocide.

    Also, reading a book by someone isn't the same as honoring them nationally. We all read controversial books at some point, for school or personally, and that doesn't mean the authors should be honored. And people shouldn't be prevented from reading what they want to read.

    Also, on Mel Gibson, I agree also. Mel Gibson not only ranted in an anti-woman, anti-Semitic and racist diatribe, he twice threatened a Jewish writer and critic, Frank Rich, who criticized his movie. He deliberately kept Jewish reviewers from seeing it when it was first screened.

    Gibson's father is a known Holocaust denier, and Gibson supports his father in every way.

    And Sarkozy? How does he get away with equating being gay with promoting Nazi genocide? The Nazis killed a lot of gay people, too. I'm surprised if gay people and Jewish people didn't criticize him for that gaffe.