French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe this weekend told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche that he has no objection to the republication of three anti-Semitic pamphlets written in the 1930s by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Céline’s works influenced many 20th Century literary figures, in France and in the English-speaking world, and elsewhere in the Western World, including Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Robbe-Grillet, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., William S. Burroughs, Edward Abbey, and Ken Kesey.
However, Céline’s vocal support for the Axis powers in WW2 and his anti-Semitic pamphlets have cost him an honorary spot in the French literary pantheon. At the 50th anniversary of Céline’s death, in 2011, French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand announced that Céline would be excluded from the list of 500 French Cultural Icons to be honored that year because of his anti-Semitic writings.
For decades, Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets from the 1930s had not been reprinted because Céline’s wife has forbidden their publication. But in 2017 the 105-year-old widow gave permission to Gallimard to publish them.
Nazi hunter and Holocaust expert Serge Klarsfeld is demanding that publishing house Gallimard not be allowed to issue an anthology in May, under the title “Ecrits polémiques” (Polemic writings), gathering Céline’s anti-Semitic and racist texts: ” Trivia for a massacre,” “The school of the Dead,” and “The fine sheets.”
Frédéric Potier, interministerial prefect on the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT hate, warned Gallimard about the risks reissuing the anti-Semitic pamphlets: “These are outright anti-Semitic and racist works. Last night I read part of ‘The School of the Dead,’ which dates from 1937. It is not a soft version of [Céline’s masterpiece] ‘Journey to the End of the Night,’ but incitement to pure hatred.”
“What I don’t want is an anti-Semitic bestseller,” Potier told AFP, insisting that “in France, racism is not an opinion. It’s a crime.”
“Simply put, these [pamphlets] are not literature. These are calls to hate. The risk is that it reinforces prejudice, that it reinforces things you can already see on the Internet — and especially among right-wing extremists.”
Prime Minister Philippe, who is not opposed to the republication, stressed that the collection “must be thoughtfully accompanied,” commenting that “there are very good reasons to detest the man himself, but you cannot deny the writer’s central position in French literature.”
It is interesting to note that, back in 1938, when the looming catastrophe still around the bend, the critics refused to take works such as “Trivia for a Massacre” seriously as an unabashed expression of anti-Semitism. Jules Rivet, a journalist with Le Canard enchaîné, wrote: “Here is a beautiful hatred, clean, good violence with raised sleeves, short arms, pavement raised to full biceps! […] It’s an individual barricade, with, at the top, a free man who yells, beautifully…”
André Gide wrote in The New French Review of April 1938, “When Céline comes to talk about a kind of conspiracy of silence, a coalition to prevent the sale of his books, it is obvious that he wants to laugh. And when he makes the Jew responsible for his failure, it goes without saying that it is a joke.”
But Georges Bernanos , a later critic of French defeatism against the Nazis, wrote the same work, “This time Céline picked the wrong urinal.”