Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Louis-Ferdinand Céline with his dogs, Meudon, France, circa 1955


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.

At the end of November 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht, Denoël published Céline’s next book, the 57,000-word L’École des cadavres—“The School of Corpses.” Where, a year earlier, in Bagatelles, Céline had used every rhetorical means at his disposal to conjure, with buffoonish intensity, cartoonish hyperbole, and tireless vulgarity, an image of the Jews as culprits for the iniquities of modern life and of ancient tyranny—a series of tableaux so absurd in their overstatement that some uncommonly blinkered readers mistook their nature—in L’École there can be no mistaking what side Céline was on. “I feel very close to Hitler, very close to all the Germans,” he writes, “I consider them brothers, they have every reason to be racist. It would bring me no end of pain if they were defeated.”

To avoid such a defeat, a little anti-Semitism wasn’t going to be enough. “I find Italian anti-Semitism lukewarm for my taste, bloodless, inadequate,” Céline explains, referring to Italy’s Leggi razziali, the racial laws promulgated there in September 1938. “I find it dangerous. A distinction between good Jews and bad Jews? It makes no sense”:

Does a surgeon make a distinction between good and bad germs?… No. It would be foolish, a disaster. He boils all his instruments before he operates, not during, a good twenty minutes under painstaking pressure…. The ABCs of the Art of Surgery.

Everything is mysterious about germs just as everything is mysterious about Jews. One germ so harmless, one Jew so admirable yesterday, tomorrow brings rage, damnation, infernal blight. No one can predict the future of a germ any more than the future of a Jew…. Waves of infection spread through space, as they wish, when they wish, and that’s that. Harmless bacteria, harmless Jews, semi-virulent germs become virulent tomorrow, epidemial. The same Jews, the same germs, just at different moments in life…. No one has the right to risk introducing a single germ, a single Jew said to be innocuous, into the operating theater. No one knows what will happen, what did happen, what will mutate the most benign-looking germ or Jew….

What’s happening with the kikes in Italy and France is exactly what happened with pseudo-sterilization. It’s no mystery…. If you want to get rid of the rats in a ship, or the stink bugs in a house, do you de-rat by half, and exterminate on just the first floor? You’ll be reinvaded in a month by ten times the rats, by twenty times the bugs….

Two go out the door and 36,000 come back in through the window…. You have to know what you want. Do you want to be rid of the Jews or do you want them to stay? If you really want to get rid of the Jews, then don’t do it 36,000 ways, with 36,000 pretenses! Racism! The Jews aren’t afraid of anything except racism! They don’t care about anti-Semitism. They can always handle anti-Semitism…. Racism! Racism! Racism! And not just a little, not halfheartedly, but completely! absolutely! inexorably! like Pasteur’s perfect sterilization.

Once France was under the Occupation, once Céline’s publisher, Denoël, had launched a new imprint, Nouvelles Éditions Françaises (its inaugural title: Dr. Georges Montandon’s Comment reconnaître le Juif? [How Do You Recognize the Jew?]), Céline’s 34,000-word Les Beaux Draps (A Fine Mess) arrived in the spring of 1941. Céline finds “more Jews than ever in the streets, more Jews than ever in the press, more Jews than ever at the bar, the Opéra, the Comédie Française, in manufacturing, in banks. Paris and France under the sway of Freemasons and Jews more than ever and more arrogantly than ever before.” His solution?

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them.

While Céline would have us understand that the Jews, despite his 200,000 words of wartime incitement, were still enjoying the best of all possible worlds, new editions of Bagatelles and L’École were being readied for 1942 and 1943—the latter in an illustrated edition with a new preface by Céline (“Much water under the bridge since this book came out!”). Because paper was being rationed in France and Denoël was running low, Céline called in a favor from Karl Epting, wartime director of the German Institute in Paris:

Dear Epting,

You were once kind enough to inform me that in the event of my publisher lacking paper to print my books—you might be able to come to my assistance. I have not forgotten those tempting words—up to now we have struggled against growing penury but we have reached the end of our rope— To reprint my principal works we would need fifteen tons of paper. That is the naked truth—Do you think you can help me? [In English] That is the question—Be or not.

Most cordially yours.



“While the content of Céline’s pamphlets is, unintentionally, perhaps even more tragic than the events that take place in his novels,” writes Marlon Jones in his new introduction to Normance (1954), the fifth of Céline’s eight novels and the last to appear in English, “the consequences of these anti-Semitic writings gave his life a particular trajectory, led to his period of exile, and ultimately, provided living fertilizer for some of his richest literary produce.” Jones would have us understand that Céline’s “pamphlets” are important today only inasmuch as we can be grateful for their impact on Céline’s biography—on how the troubles they cost him fortified his subsequent, “richest” writing. Undoubtedly, as France regained its senses and its borders and started to settle its overdue accounts—and as Céline saw other anti-Semitic agitators rounded up and decided to flee through Germany at the war’s fraying end—such events did find their way into the novels D’un château l’autre (1957), Nord (1960), and Rigodon (1969), just as the eighteen months he spent awaiting extradition from Danish prison to trial in France after the war fed Ferié pour un autre fois (1952).

In one of these postwar books, Normance, Céline gives us a day in the life of wartime Paris, as an air raid hits Montmartre in 1944. Here we have play-by-play of the day’s explosions, inner and outer:

Ah, all of a sudden, the babooming stops completely!…silence!…the apartment stops rocking…shuddering…creaking…cracking…almost, at least…a lull…the floor’s still bulging, rippling…but not so violently…the storm’s blown over…just a little swell to crawl across…gentle…I catch [the dog]…I’ll have to auscultate him…dogs’ hearts beat faster than humans’…I’m always interested in the physiological angle!…never mind the circumstances!…I’ll auscultate all the hearts I come across…I’ve auscultated a thousand cats’ hearts…that’s delicate work!…hardly takes anything for their pulse to become “undetectable”…you know? Palpitation in dogs is mainly caused by their masters’ voices, more than exertion…dogs are sentimental…I’d even auscultate an elephant…or a crocodile…a mouse…I don’t have the time!…I enjoy creatures’ physiology….it’s their pathology that gets me down….

Dogs may well be sentimental, but Céline is no less so, or oddly so, willing to auscultate the heart of every animal, of thousands of cats, dogs, elephants, crocodiles, mice, but rather less adept at sounding the hearts of human beings. Consider, for example, how on the first page of his first book, he writes of the French “race” that it is

nothing but a hodgepodge of filth like me, rheumy, flea-bitten, aloof, who, chased by hunger, plague, tumors, and cold, ran aground here, arriving broken from the four corners of the earth. They couldn’t keep going because the ocean stood in their way. That’s France and that’s the French…. Vicious and spineless, raped, robbed, gutted, and always halfwits…. We don’t change a bit! Neither our socks nor our masters nor our opinions or, if we do, too late to have it matter. We’re born followers and die of it! Soldiers without pay, heroes for all humanity, talking monkeys, tortured words, we’re the minions of King Misery! We’re in his grasp! When we’re foolish, he squeezes…. His fingers forever around our necks, it’s hard to speak…. No way to live….

The language is, indeed, alive. In French particularly one registers the profound technical gift Céline possessed, his ability to sew vernacular into his syntactically exacting prose, prose Simon de Beauvoir called “a new instrument: writing as alive as speech.” But the theme played on that instrument—“The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death”—one repeated in book after book, is shallow and simpleminded. To read any single novel by Céline is to receive, in a bracing style, a hysterical primer on the abjection of being. To read them all is to register a unique species of racism: a hatred not of particular elements of humanity but of the human race as a whole. Thus Jean Giono said of Céline’s writing, “If Céline had truly believed what he wrote, he would have killed himself.”

So, of course, we say that he didn’t really hate the human race as a whole. His hatred of the human race, we say, was a novel way of addressing the suffering of its members. “Céline was a brave French soldier in the First World War,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five. “He became a doctor, and he treated poor people in the daytime, and he wrote grotesque novels all night.” Vonnegut and Philip Roth admired those grotesques and taught them in their classes at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1960s. Bruce Jay Friedman included Céline in his 1965 anthology Black Humor, the only French writer beside Barth, Pynchon, and Heller.7 “You get humor along with tragedy,” the narrator insists in Normance, and though true enough as a description of Céline’s method it suggests a balance between qualities that his work does not, taken as a whole, support.

The lack of proportion in our view of Céline can be seen in unlikely places. On the back of the Vitoux biography, there is much fuss from American writers claiming Céline as theirs. “For me,” Henry Miller says, “he will remain always not just a great writer but a great man.” More significant is Philip Roth’s confession: “To tell you the truth, in France, Céline is my Proust! Now there is a very great writer. Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice,” a remark that remains worthwhile because Roth never made so unqualified a claim. Spliced from a 1984 interview published in French in LaQuinzaine Littéraire, Roth’s approbation reads differently in its original, unbowdlerized form:

To tell you the truth, in France, my Proust is Céline! There’s a very great writer. Even if his anti- Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books, even Castle to Castle. Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice.

Just as Roth’s “Jewish conscience” was itself silently suspended by editorial sleight of hand, a no less misleading elision of Céline’s posterity has been made. Henri Godard, editor of the Pléiade edition of Céline’s novels, has argued that, taken together, the eight novels possess a “dynamic unity” without which “it is not possible to get the true measure of Céline.” This does not go far enough. Once one extends the reach of Godard’s claim to include the anti-Semitic trilogy, the congruence of Céline’s wink-wink misanthropy with his unblinking sociopathy becomes apparent. It is not that we shouldn’t read Céline because he was, at a profound level, contemptible. It is rather that, to understand Céline, we must be ready to, and permitted to, read all that he wrote. Only in this way can we begin to understand what we are saying when we might think to class him as—of all things—a humorist.

This Issue

January 14, 2010