Last week, one of France’s most prestigious publishing houses stirred a controversy when it announced its intention to release a 1,000 tome by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a stellar novelist turned anti-Semitic crank and convicted of collaborating with the Nazis. The volume was to include some of Céline’s most vitriolic work, some of the gentler of which compared Jews to rats. After a weeklong media storm and the threat of a lawsuit from French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, the publisher announced yesterday he would not be pursuing the project after all.
“I am suspending the project,” said Antoine Gallimard, “having judged that conditions were not right for ensuring a proper job in terms of methodology and history.”
Gallimard had earlier stated that Céline’s later works, not reprinted since the end of World War II, would be put “in their context as writings of great violence and marked by the anti-Semitic hatred of the author.” Gallimard added yesterday that he “understood the feelings of readers who might find this re-edition shocking, hurtful or worrying for obvious ethical reasons,” but still believed that to censure the works “prevents light being shed on their ideological roots and only attracts unhealthy curiosity.”
Born Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches in 1894 just outside Paris, Céline, as he soon became known, joined the French army to rebel against his parents and fought in World War I, where he was wounded. Upon returning to France after stints in England and Africa, he married, had children, and completed his medical education. No sooner did he become a doctor, however, than he abandoned both his profession and his family, transforming himself into a writer. His first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, a semi-autobiographical work rich with coarse slang and unsettling imagery, was considered an instant masterpiece, even though the author was denied France’s highest literary honor, the Goncourt, by an establishment too shocked by his innovative style. Another masterful novel, Death on the Installment Plan, soon followed, but Céline’s bigotry seemed to rise in tandem with his fame. By 1937, he was writing primarily virulently anti-Semitic essays, which were among the ones slated for reprinting in the now-aborted Gallimard volume. When the Germans occupied France, Céline enthusiastically wrote for a number of collaborationist publications, but his hatred of Jews was deemed too extreme even by the Nazis: Bernhard Payr, the Nazi superintendent of propaganda in France, praised Céline’s “correct racial notions” but judged his work to be “hysterical wailings” that would fail to move or convince readers.
When the Allies landed in Normandy, Céline fled to Norway. He was tried in absentia, convicted of collaborating with the Nazis, and sentenced to prison. He served his one-year term in Norway before returning to France, receiving amnesty for his crimes, and again taking up writing. The Beat Generation, including Jews like Allen Ginsberg, was drawn to his raw and evocative language, and he died of an aneurysm in 1961, one day after completing his final novel. Before his death, he made it clear that he did not wish to have his hateful work from the 1930s reprinted, but his widow, now 105, recently agreed to have the work reissued, which is how the recent edition was conceived. And while Gallimard’s critical edition will never see the light of day, Céline’s missives are widely available online and in used book shops, giving these vicious essays a ghoulish afterlife that cannot be curbed.