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Uncovering Céline

Bagatelles pour un massacre [Trifles for a Massacre]

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Denoël, 379 pp. (1937)

L’École des cadavres [The School of Corpses]

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Denoël, 272 pp. (1938)

Les Beaux Draps [A Fine Mess]

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Paris: Les Nouvelles Éditions Françaises, 158 pp. (1941)

Normance

by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, translated from the French and with an introduction by Marlon Jones
Dalkey Archive, 371 pp., $14.95 (paper)
mason_1-011410.jpg
Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Louis-Ferdinand Céline with his dogs, Meudon, France, circa 1955

1.

Louis-Ferdinand Destouches met Cillie Pam in Paris, at the Café de la Paix, in September 1932. Destouches was a physician who worked at a public clinic in Clichy treating poor and working-class patients; Pam was a twenty-seven-year-old Viennese gymnastics instructor eleven years his junior on a visit to the city. Destouches suggested a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne, took Pam to dinner later that night, and afterward took her home. Two weeks together began, after which Pam returned to her work and life in Vienna. Over the next seven years, they saw each other infrequently but corresponded regularly. Pam, who was Jewish, married and had a son. Destouches, who wrote in his free time, became famous shortly after their brief affair, his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, published at the end of 1932 under the pseudonym “Céline” (his maternal grandmother’s first name), proving an enormous success. In February 1939, Destouches received word that Pam had lost her husband: he had been seized, sent to Dachau, and killed. On February 21, Destouches wrote to Pam, who had fled abroad:

Dear Cillie,

What awful news! At least you’re far away, on the other side of the world. Were you able to take a little money with you? Obviously, you’re going to start a new life over there. How will you work? Where will Europe be by the time you receive this letter? We’re living over a volcano.

On my side, my little dramas are nothing compared to yours (for the moment), but tragedy looms nonetheless….

Because of my anti-Semitic stance I’ve lost all my jobs (Clichy, etc.) and I’m going to court on March 8. You see, Jews can persecute too.

How a reader responds to this letter is, I suspect, a fair predictor of how capable he or she might be of tolerat-ing the extreme disjunctions that predominate in the life and art of its author. One of Céline’s biographers, for example, describes the letter as possessing “a curious blend of concern and sheer tactless selfishness,” a response that itself seems to exhibit its own curious blend of sheer shortsightedness and apologism. Another biographer calls it, reasonably if inadequately, “astonishing,” but does offer the useful detail that Pam, upon receipt of the letter, “never saw [Destouches] again and stopped writing.”

My own sense is that such a letter would astonish most readers—words of condolence over anti-Semitic violence do not often contain anti-Semitic sympathies—except those who have read not only Céline’s novels but also what have been inaccurately termed, for generations, his “anti-Semitic pamphlets.” Alas, no English-speaking reader who does not know French could make so comprehensive a survey. Though all eight of Céline’s novels are now available in dependable English translations, the so-called anti-Semitic pamphlets have never been officially published in English. Having recently read them in French in bootleg editions readily available online,1 I should report that the letter above, taken in that larger, less available context, isn’t astonishing in the least. Rather, it’s exactly the sort of letter one would expect from an anti-Semite of Céline’s tireless and impenitent ardor, a writer who, from 1937 to 1944, spent all his flagrant literary energy and aptitude calling—shouting—for the death of every Jew in France (for a start).

Published just after Christmas 1937, fourteen months before his letter to Cillie, Céline’s Bagatelles pour un massacre—approximately “Trifles for a Massacre,” pour conveying “in favor of,” “to the end of,” and the more musicological “as accompaniment to”—is by no conceivable measure a pamphlet.Running to 113,000 words (The Great Gatsby is 48,000 words), and published in a first printing of 20,000 copies by Denoël—the same house that issued Céline’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit; his first play, L’Église (1933); and his second novel, Mort à crédit (1936)— Bagatelles is very much a book, one that went on to sell 75,000 copies by war’s end. Narrated by a physician alternately referred to as Ferdinand (the autobiographical narrator of Céline’s Mort à credit reprised) and as Céline, Bagatelles revolves around the physician-narrator’s failed efforts to find a professional dance company to perform his ballets, scenarios for three of which appear in the narrative.2

Beginning with an apocryphal epigraph attributed to an eighteenth- century Almanach des Bons-Enfants (“He who dies without having settled his accounts is wicked, he will not go to Paradise”) and ending with the ballet Van Bagaden (an allegory involving a lowly accountant’s toil over the ledgers of his greedy master), Bagatelles may be read, on one level, as an exploration of what we value in earthly life and who decides it. “The world is full of people who call themselves refined and who are not, I declare, not even a bit,” Ferdinand tells us at the outset. “I, your humble servant, I fully believe that I, I am a raffiné.” This self-mocking self-certainty, a voice familiar to readers of Céline’s earlier novels, particularly the satirical sections of Mort à crédit, is a conspicuous feature of Bagatelles. In dialogues with a range of interlocutors—Léo Gutman, a fellow physician and a Jew with connections in the world of dance; the narrator’s cousin, Gustin Sabayot, another carryover from Mort à crédit—Ferdinand vents his spleen, rounding tirelessly and monomaniacally on the creature he holds responsible for his failures in the world of ballet and, by extension, all failures in the world: the Jew. A characteristic paragraph:

All the same, you need only consider, a little more closely, the pretty puss of the average kike, male or female, to remember it forever…. Those spying eyes, lyingly pale…that uptight smile…those livestocky lips that recall: a hyena…. And then out of nowhere there’s that look that drifts, heavy, leaden, stunned…the nigger’s blood that flows…. Those twitchy naso-labial commisures…twisted, furrowed, downward curving, defensive, hollowed by hate and disgust…for you!…for the abject animal of the enemy race, accursed, to be destroyed…. Their nose, the “toucan” beak of the swindler, the traitor, the felon…the sordid schemes, the betrayals, a nose that points to, lowers toward, and falls over their mouths, their hideous slots, that rotten banana, their croissant, their filthy kike grins, boorish, slimy, even in beauty pageants, the very outline of a sucking snout: the Vampire…. It’s pure zoology!…elementary!… It’s your blood these ghouls are after!… It’s enough to make you scream…to shudder, if you have the least inkling of instinct left in your veins, if anything still moves around in your meat and your head, other than pasty lukewarm rhetoric, stuffed with cunning little tricks, the gray suit of bloodless clichés, marinated in alcohol…. Grins of the kind you find on Jewish pusses, understand, aren’t improvised, they don’t date from yesterday or from the Dreyfus Affair…. They erupt from the depths of the ages, to terrify us, to draw us into miscegenation, into bloody Talmudic mires and, finally, into the Apocalypse!…[My translation.]

The description of Jewish physiognomy and the great peril it portends is as stylistically lively as it is substantively empty: anti-Semitic stock-in-trade, the Jew as scheming fiend, out to annihilate the Gentile—this time by leading Europe into war once again. The roteness of much of Céline’s ranting owes to his having plagiarized much of the book’s contents: large passages appear within quotation marks but without attribution.3 Céline’s sources? The very pamphlets that his wide network of anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist acquaintances had been generating, and for which Céline’s fame and Denoël’s resources stole a much larger stage.

Thus Bagatelles (and its succeeding volumes, which adopt the same sticky-fingered compositional strategy) is, in part, an uncommon sort of commonplace book: a clearinghouse for the promulgation of libel from many sources, sources by which Céline is stimulated into producing the “original” writing that binds the books together.4 Similarly, the 379 pages of the original edition of Bagatelles are yoked into stylistic coherence through, in part, their consistent vocabulary, the word Juif occurring 957 times and the word youtre (kike) 114 more, adequate quantification of a claim Céline made the month before Bagatelles appeared that his new book would be “on the Jews.”5

Judging precisely what kind of book on the Jews Céline produced would not seem to demand great deliberation: the “anti-Semitic stance” he mentioned in his “astonishing” letter to Cillie is hard to miss. There can be no disputing that Bagatelles traffics in the shabbiest libels (“The Jew, directly or through middlemen, controls the following Trusts making up 750 billion of the 1,000 billion French national fortune”), trots out the industries said to be under Semitic control (fifty-six in all, including railroads, sponges, coal mines, wheat, armaments, vacuum tubes, insurance, mineral water, movie studios, shoes, electricity…), postulates the familiar global conspiracy (“It’s the Jews in London, Washington, and Moscow that stand in the way of a Franco-German alliance”), and promotes the usual forgeries (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion “predict almost exactly all that the Jews have done in the world since then…and the Jews have been doing a lot in the world!”). And yet the slogan on Bagatelles ‘s publicity wrapper (“For a good laugh in the trenches”) as well as the publisher’s blurb (“The most atrocious, the most savage, the most hateful, but the most unbelievable lampoon the world has ever seen”), sentences written by the publisher in collaboration with Céline, suggested to some that the book was intended—as another world war loomed—as a satire on such extremism.

More than a few readers not lacking for sophistication received it this way. “It seems to me,” wrote André Gide in April 1938 in La Nouvelle Revue Française, “that there has been an awful lot of nonsense written about Bagatelles pour un massacre by its critics”:

What surprises me is that they could all have been so mistaken. For, after all, Céline was playing for high stakes, even the very highest, as he always does. He has always come straight to the point. He has done his best to warn that all of this is no more serious than Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills…. Certain other readers might not be comfortable with a literary game that, with the help of stupidity, runs the risk of tragic consequences…. If one were forced to see in Bagatelles pour un massacre anything other than a game, then Céline, despite all his genius, would have no excuse for stirring up our commonplace passions with such cynicism and casual levity.

Follow the Nobel laureate’s diagnosis of satire—for which Céline’s apologists rarely seek a second opinion6—to its unconvincing terminus. The sad (but true) biographical facts of the early life of Louis-Ferdinand Destouches—wounded in the trenches of World War I, by most accounts severely, exiting the war a decorated veteran with tinnitus so pronounced that its roaring is said to have produced lifelong seizures—also left him a vehement pacifist.

His Prix Goncourt–winning biographer Frédéric Vitoux holds that Céline “voiced [his anti-Semitism] with a specific goal—to avoid war, save the peace, peace at any price.” In that goal-driven light, Céline, like Juvenal, Rabelais, or Swift, would be designer of, as Gide put it, “a literary game,” one that hoped to do what Alexander Pope said satire should: “deter, if not reform.” Bagatelles : the anti-Semitic opus to end all anti-Semitic opuses. The main problem with this line of thinking is that Bagatelles was not Céline’s last anti-Semitic book; rather, only the most narratively sophisticated in an increasingly crude trilogy of anti-Semitic books, one that—once the war was underway—was written in a moral vacuum.

  1. 1

    An anonymous but largely accurate translation of Bagatelles exists at multiple sites online: 1, 2, 3. The bootleg editions are kept out of print in France, and banned from translation abroad, by Céline’s ninety-seven-year-old widow, Lucette Destouches. “I have forbidden the reissue of the pamphlets,” she has said, “and tirelessly brought to trial all those who…secretly issued them in France and abroad. These pamphlets existed in a certain historical context, a particular time, and have brought Louis and me nothing but unhappiness. They no longer have any reason to exist today.” Destouches’s ban extends until 2031, when the seventy-year term of copyright control that began with her husband’s death in 1961 expires. Even so, there is a good chance, because of laws passed by French parliament in 1972 and 1990 making illegal “diffamation ou l’injure raciste” (racial defamation) and “le délit de négationnisme ” (Holocaust denial), that they will never see legal print in France again.

  2. 2

    These ballets, Birth of a Fairy, Wicked Paul, Brave Virginie, and Van Bagaden, supplemented by two others, were subsequently published by Gallimard as Ballets sans musique, sans personne, sans rien, and have been available in France since 1959.

  3. 3

    As Alice Kaplan documented in her pioneering Relevé des sources et citations dans Bagatelles pour un massacre (Paris: Du Lérot, 1987). The project of sourcing Céline’s anti-Semitic books was continued by Régis Terramanzi in his Esthétique de l’Outrance (Paris: Du Lérot, 1999).

  4. 4

    The longer passages quoted here are examples of Céline’s “original” material.

  5. 5

    Whereas the word “Jew” appears only once in the first two novels and “kike” not at all.

  6. 6

    See, in these pages, Victor White, “Only Joking,” October 12, 1967.

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