In 1973 my professor at the University of Bordeaux assigned Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night, 1932) in his course for foreign students on major French novels. He warned us that the book was important, magnificent even, but that its author had dishonored himself during the Nazi occupation. The nickname we gave the professor, the Drycleaner, had more to do with his impeccable suit than his take on Céline, but it’s linked in my mind to a question that has dogged me to this day: What do students need to know about an author’s life? The Drycleaner wasn’t cleaning up Céline’s record exactly, but he was presenting us with a shiny literary masterpiece and putting aside the rabid anti-Semitism of a writer who is regularly heralded as one of the “greats” of twentieth-century French literature.
“Rabid anti-Semitism” doesn’t begin to describe Céline’s racist writings—on the Jewish nose, for example, in Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre, 1937):
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!1
This isn’t without literary technique: Céline takes ordinary racist stereotypes, adds an enormous amount of verbal energy and extended metaphor, and crowns his insults with an incongruous nod to beauty pageants. In occupied France, even some of the Nazis thought he was a bit too much.
Céline disdained Proust, twenty-three years his elder, and that disdain became fundamental to his identity as a writer. In the first pages of Voyage au bout de la nuit, he complains about Proust’s high-society characters and their “watery” desires. Between 1937 and 1941 Céline published Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres (School for Corpses, 1938), and Les Beaux Draps (A Fine Mess, 1941), the nonfiction books known as “the pamphlets,” in which he exorcised his resentment of the literary world and discovered an all-purpose target—European Jews—as terrified Jewish refugees in flight from the Nazi terror were pouring into France. In his move from fiction to nonfiction rant, he gave full rein to the racism and homophobia lurking behind his earlier aesthetic complaints about Proust. In Bagatelles pour un massacre, Proust becomes “the Jewish butt-boy of the Camellias,” a writer obsessed with “the most microscopic analysis of the ass-reamings, ‘nuance-humping’ onto half a quarter of the ass of a fly.” That form of insult became Céline’s stock-in-trade, ready to be applied anytime he was dissatisfied with reality.
If the case of Céline is so painful, it’s due in part to the promise of his beginnings. The French romance with him started with the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit. A road novel that takes its nihilistic hero, Ferdinand Bardamu, from the trenches of World War I to Africa, New York, Detroit, and back home to the poor suburbs of Paris, it missed winning France’s major literary prize, the Goncourt, by a few votes, and won the Renaudot instead. Leon Trotsky wrote that Céline had “walked into great literature as other men walk into their own homes.”
I still love teaching Voyage au bout de la nuit, for its condemnation of war and colonialism and for its bittersweet hymn to New York:
Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we’d seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifyingly stiff.
The scene is rhythmic, and beautiful, and part of the DNA of my literary life. And for any understanding of twentieth-century French literature, Céline and Proust are the bookends: Proust’s slowed-down sentences; Céline’s speeding “emotional metro.” The opposition works ideologically as well. Proust, half Jewish, was a champion of the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason; Céline, whose father read to him from Édouard Drumont’s anti-Semitic bible La France juive (1886) at the dinner table, was anti-Dreyfus. Proust, the bourgeois, dined with the aristocracy; Céline, the ordinary guy, slummed in the impoverished suburbs. One loved complicated syntax; the other, slang. Together, for better or for worse, they’re France.
Born Louis-Ferdinand Destouches in 1894, he began using the pen name “Louis-Ferdinand Céline,” taken from his grandmother’s and mother’s first names, with his first novel. His second novel, Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan, 1936), his greatest work, moves back in time to his childhood on the Passage Choiseul, a commercial arcade in central Paris where his mother ran a lace shop. The family lived upstairs, suffocating from the odors emanating from the gas lighting. You can read the novel as a lower-class rewrite of Proust. Céline’s madeleine scene is a family puking on a ferry; his Albertine is Nora at a British boarding school, Meanwell College, where the smitten Ferdinand, a younger version of the Ferdinand Bardamu we meet in Voyage, resolves not to talk. The writing, far cruder and more physical than that of the first novel, was censored, and the first edition was full of white spaces where words and phrases had been cut.
Mort à crédit was a critical failure—the antithesis of art, wrote the critic Robert Brasillach in the royalist right-wing daily L’Action française. The left, which had championed Voyage au bout de la nuit for its critique of war and colonialism, didn’t come to Céline’s rescue; perhaps it was distracted by the victory of the Popular Front. He had very few defenders, and he was furious. His first anti-Semitic pamphlet appeared a year later. But it always strikes me as odd that people attribute Céline’s radical anti-Semitism to disappointment over a poorly received novel, as though he had discovered it all of a sudden, when it had been with him since earliest childhood.
Ten years after reading Voyage au bout de la nuit at the University of Bordeaux, my Ph.D. in hand, I had the good fortune to meet Henri Godard, the editor of the definitive scholarly edition of Céline’s novels in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. He suggested that I might be the right person to do the minute research needed to identify the sources Céline had used to write Bagatelles pour un massacre. It was an exciting prospect, since I had never worked in archives before. Godard, who had demonstrated Céline’s literary process through a rigorous study of manuscripts, wanted to get to the bottom of his anti-Semitism. He helped me figure out how to make my book a neutral resource for other scholars rather than a polemic. No argument was necessary, really, when the texts spoke for themselves.
I remember Godard opening Bagatelles pour un massacre and pointing to the quotations, some from anti-Semitic propaganda and others from so-called “Jewish” writers who were quoted and misquoted in that propaganda. The book is a compendium of racist drivel, medieval tales, even snippets of librettos for imagined ballets, all glued together by Céline’s unmistakable storytelling and orchestrated by a narrator responding with outrage to what he’s been reading in the papers. It begins:
“Ah! say there!…come take a peek!… Take a look at my newspaper!…how they speak of you!… Ah! you still haven’t read it?…”
She underlined the passage for me with her finger…Ah! how they set you up! She was totally jubilant about it…as happy as possible…
“You are Céline, aren’t you?…”
So off I went for my crash course in the dark side of literary history. When I see the dry encyclopedia I compiled on Céline’s hideous culture referred to kindly by colleagues as my “pioneering study,”2 it occurs to me that a young American professor with a Jewish-sounding name was the perfect person to sign that compendium of hatred, since she wasn’t likely to be accused of being attracted to the sources. France needed an outsider to give Céline studies a kosher stamp. But that’s not exactly right. I was drawn to the topic. The child of a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who died when I was seven, I was mimicking my lost father the only way I knew how—by reading. Whatever zeal I brought to the task was complicated and tormenting, for I sensed that my literary Nuremberg was heading toward a hung jury. By identifying his plagiarism, I was condemning his affinities, but wasn’t I also making Bagatelles a little bit less Céline’s?
“It’s always sad to have to be ashamed of a great writer,” began Roger Grenier’s coverage of Céline’s funeral in the newspaper France-Dimanche in July 1961. Today, literary France seems more excited about Céline than ashamed. To understand the current fascination with him, it’s important to go back to 1937, when Bagatelles pour un massacre sold 75,000 copies, dwarfing the sales for Mort à crédit. During the Nazi occupation Céline reissued his pamphlets from the 1930s and wrote another, even more virulent one, Les Beaux Draps. He wrote letters to the editors of the most extreme collaborationist newspapers, attended the sinister Institute for the Study of Jewish Questions, ingratiated himself with the occupiers. In a letter to the fascist newspaper Je suis partout, he proclaimed, “Total fanatic racism or death!”
By the time the Nazis withdrew from Paris in 1944, Céline had fled as well, fearing arrest. From his exile in Denmark, he wrote a memorandum to be used in his defense at his treason trial in absentia:
I do not remember having written a single anti-Semitic line since 1937. Besides, I never at any time by a single line incited anti-Semitic prosecution. I did protest against the action of certain Jews who were pushing us into war. That is quite different.
He argued that his racism was strategic, that he was merely a patriotic pacifist in the years before World War II. “I am probably the only well-known French writer who has remained strictly, jealously, fiercely, a writer and nothing but a writer without compromise,” he added. In 1951 he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, deprived of civil rights, and fined 50,000 francs, with confiscation of half his assets. Two months later, he was amnestied by a military tribunal and returned to France.
Nothing but a writer is the phrase he was counting on, and for the decade that remained of his life, he advertised himself as a “style” man. As for his pacifism, you can find plenty of Céline fans who argue that the “massacre” referred to in Bagatelles pour un massacre was strictly the massacre of French soldiers in World War I, not the massacre of the Jews about which the book fantasizes over and over in violent detail. For decades, the style alibi worked. In “Déshonneur et patrie: retour sur l’affaire Céline,” an illuminating essay tracking the interest in Céline over seventy years of postwar literary history, Philippe Roussin points out that the avant-garde Tel Quel critics of the 1960s and 1970s grouped him with mad geniuses like Antonin Artaud and considered his poetic genius as revolutionary in its own way as that of “real” revolutionaries. With the waning of the avant-garde, the French trials of war criminals such as Klaus Barbie, Maurice Papon, and Paul Touvier in the 1980s and 1990s, and a literature of remembrance by writers traumatized by their memories of the war—Marguerite Duras, Sarah Kofman, Lucie Aubrac—and others, like Patrick Modiano, reckoning with their parents’ war, the style alibi lost some of its sheen.
Roussin argues that the Céline worth reading is the novelist of the 1930s, before racism poisoned the well of his fiction. But being on the wrong side of history also served him a heaping plate of material for new work after 1945 when, in a trilogy of novels—D’un château l’autre (Castle to Castle, 1957), Nord (North, 1960), Rigodon (1961)—he chronicled a shattered world in ever more fragmented prose and honed his persecution complex via his increasingly deranged narrator. The writer who said he was only about style was in fact a revisionist historian, providing a rare and perversely instructive view of Vichy from the point of view of the defeated. His postwar novels are much more overtly political than the first two. They’re also ventures into Holocaust denial: “Nuremberg,” he wrote in D’un château l’autre, “needs redoing.”
Céline’s support from American writers is one of the odder twists in this tale of adulation and excoriation. A group that included Henry Miller; Joseph Cornell, a lawyer; and Milton Hindus, a young Jewish professor of literature at Brandeis, circulated a petition on his behalf while he was in prison in Denmark awaiting possible extradition. Miller claimed to have read Journey to the End of the Night in galley proofs and to have been so inspired by it that he rewrote Tropic of Cancer under its influence. Hindus was rebelling against the Marxism of his youth. He hoped to find in Céline the ultimate justification for the New Criticism: a language so rich and inventive that you would forgive its author any beliefs or actions. He went to Denmark to consolidate his bond with the exiled writer. The two soon began to argue about the war, about the Jews, about the death camps. In his book about the visit, The Crippled Giant (1950), Hindus wrote, “Céline is as tightly packed with lies as a boil is with pus.”
Hindus’s disgust notwithstanding, from the late 1950s to the 1970s Céline was a vital part of American literary culture. James Laughlin of New Directions purchased rights to the first two novels, and Ralph Manheim—the translator of Mein Kampf, Günter Grass, and Bertolt Brecht—breathed new life into Death on the Installment Plan (1966) and Journey to the End of the Night (1983). In 1958 William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg visited Céline in the ramshackle house in the Parisian suburb of Meudon where his wife gave dance lessons and he tended his domestic animals and worked on his postwar trilogy. Bruce J. Friedman included Céline in his anthology Black Humor (1965), along with Terry Southern, John Barth, and others. In 1975 Kurt Vonnegut wrote an enthusiastic preface for Manheim’s translation of Castle to Castle:
In my opinion, he discovered a higher and more awful order of literary truth by ignoring the crippled vocabularies of ladies and gentlemen and by using, instead, the more comprehensive language of shrewd and tormented guttersnipes.
Every writer is in his debt, and so is anyone else interested in discussing lives in their entirety. By being so impolite, he demonstrated that perhaps half of all experience, the animal half, had been concealed by good manners. No honest writer or speaker will ever want to be polite again.
Vonnegut gets at something essential here: Céline was exposing a repressed voice in French letters, the voice of an angry lower-middle class wedged between the proletariat and the grand bourgeoisie. When Philip Roth said, in a much-quoted interview, that he read Céline despite the anti-Semitism and despite what a horrible person Céline was (“Céline is a great liberator. I feel called by his voice”), he was expressing a gratitude similar to Vonnegut’s. Morris Dickstein, wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, observed that Death on the Installment Plan, “with only minimal adjustment, could sit on the shelf of Jewish American classics.” He argued persuasively that Roth wrote Portnoy’s Complaint under the influence of Manheim’s translation, from which he drew not just the theme of masturbation but “the heightened farcical tone of the monologue, the sense of pain at the heart of laughter, which had little precedent in Roth’s work.”3
But scandal, not style, has kept Céline in the literary conversation. In the past decade, there have been three scandals—the first provoked by the French Ministry of Culture, the second by his widow, and the third by his estate.
In 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of Céline’s death, his name appeared on the Ministry of Culture’s annual list of government commemorations in the cultural sphere. There was an immediate outcry and a debate about whether commemoration is the same thing as celebration and whether the French Republic should commemorate this rabidly anti-Semitic Frenchman who published his racist ideas during the occupation, when 76,000 Jews were deported from France with the complicity of the Vichy government. Some thought that not commemorating Céline was airbrushing history, that commemoration should provide an opportunity to investigate the Céline paradox. Others argued that artistic creation is a value in itself—beyond good and evil. Finally his name was withdrawn.
In 2018 Lucette Destouches, Céline’s widow, at age 106, decided to authorize republication of the pamphlets, reversing the position she had defended since his death in 1961. Historians and critics wrote passionate editorials for and against, and it looked as though Céline’s publisher, Gallimard, was going to reissue an annotated edition. Fayard, an esteemed publisher of French history, had just brought out a scholarly edition of Mein Kampf in a new translation, so there was a precedent.
In 2019 Antoine Gallimard suspended the reissue, “considering that the methodological and memorial conditions to envisage such a republication with serenity, have not been met.” Conditions mémorielles: a phrase like that would be useful in American English. He meant that what was going on in the present was getting in the way of the past. Gallimard wasn’t making any promises; he was simply suspending, waiting for the day when memory no longer ignites racial hatred. Are there grounds to use the scholarly edition of Mein Kampf as an argument for an annotated edition of Bagatelles? In the case of Hitler, we want to know where the Final Solution came from; we want to study the early expression of an evil mind that shaped the century. In the case of Céline, we’re reading one man’s resentful bile, punctuated with flashes of imagination. Diving deeper into his racial hatred produces at best the understanding of a singular pathology and at worst cultivates fascination.
Lucette Destouches’s death sparked a scandal far more significant than the other two. Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, a former literary journalist from the newspaper Libération who had no particular connection to Céline, disclosed that for fifteen years he had held a huge cache of his manuscripts—presumably the pages that Céline had always claimed were stolen from him when he fled his apartment in Montmartre in 1944: Casse-Pipe (Canon-Fodder), Londres (London), La Légende du roi Krogold (The Legend of King Krogold), Guerre, Mort à credit, Guignol’s Band I. Six thousand pages, worth millions on the literary marketplace. (The manuscript of Voyage au bout de la nuit was bought by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2001 for €1.82 million.)
Thibaudat had promised the person who gave him the manuscripts—and whom he has been unwilling to name—to conceal them until after the death of Madame Destouches, so as not to contribute to her personal fortune. During those fifteen years, he began to transcribe Céline’s sprawling handwriting. For his trouble, he was immediately sued by the Céline estate for theft—a charge the courts have dismissed as unsubstantiated.
Philippe Roussin, who has weighed in with lucidity on each of these scandals, points out that anti-Semitism and revisionism have found their way even into this so-called “purely literary” scandal, by way of a single word that appears, unquestioned, in accounts of it: “stolen.” Again and again, reports in the press accepted Céline’s myth that he had been robbed of his precious manuscripts by enemies whom he described variously as Jews and Resistance fighters and Gaullists. That isn’t what happened. After he fled with the defeated Vichy government to Germany, his empty apartment was requisitioned. Yvan Morandat, a leader in the Resistance and member of the provisional French government in Algiers, occupied it, and Céline was informed. From his exile in Denmark, he wrote to Milton Hindus in 1947 that “Morandat…threw three of my novels in progress in the trash.”
When Céline was amnestied and returned to France in 1952, he asked Morandat to give him back his possessions. Morandat had moved them into storage. He told Céline he could pay the storage bill to get them back. Céline never did, and his manuscripts eventually reached the person who transmitted them to Thibaudat. Roussin quotes a preliminary version of Féerie pour une autre fois (Fable for Another Time), drafted in Denmark, in which Morandat becomes “Colonel Moses” and the apartment is pillaged by hordes: “A good hundred of them… liberators, purgers, passed through… The most recent one, a certain Colonel Moses, conceived a child in my bed.” The petty story encapsulates classic Céline moves: any threat becomes a Jewish threat, Jews and Gaullists are indistinguishable enemies, and his own negligence becomes proof of his eternal victimhood, what Roussin calls elegantly la thèse victimaire.
Gisèle Sapiro is another voice of sanity on the Céline question. A sociologist at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, she is the author of books about political and literary choices during World War II, about the responsibility of intellectuals, and about literary marketplaces. Her book Peut-on dissocier l’oeuvre de l’auteur? is a guide for thinking through the links between writers and their creations. She delineates two schools of thought: the moralists who see work and life as indissociable, and the aesthetes who see them as radically separate. The French, she adds, have always erred on the aesthetic side, the Americans on the moral side.
Sapiro describes a number of considerations in ethical reasoning about authors and their works: Was the “error” committed in the writer’s youth, never to be repeated? If there is violence in the behavior of the writer, is that violence written into the work itself? I like Nell Stevens’s search for the right metaphor to evoke the relationship between work and creator: “Is a book its author’s child, innocent of its parent’s wrongdoing? Or is it a hologram of its creator, representing all that its author was and did?”4 It’s useful to think of Céline as a hologram, airwaves forming an indelible representation of racial violence through both his words and his commitments.
Regis Tettamanzi, who published an annotated edition of the pamphlets in Canada (where Céline’s work has entered the public domain), has argued for their republication in France. In his view, the separation between pamphlets and novels is arbitrary; there are pages of magnificent writing scattered even in a text as hideous as Bagatelles pour un massacre. Therefore, he concludes, the pamphlets need to be integrated into the complete works. Tettamanzi certainly wants his own annotations of the pamphlets to appear in France, but his argument, Sapiro points out, is not without merit: the power exercised by editors to delineate what is and isn’t a writer’s work is a form of censorship.
In the case of Céline, it’s time to combine the aesthetic and the moralist reading. It comes down to a question of continuity—continuity of intention and continuity of character. The racist pamphlets are the place where we come to understand Céline’s sociopathology, which traverses all his writing, from Voyage on. He is the great literary master of externalized blame, whose trick is always to reach out and bite his reader. And his readers are still willing to be bitten.
Guerre (War), a novel from Thibaudat’s trove of manuscripts, was published in France in April. Drafted in 1934, two years after Voyage (and, at 150 pages, likely an outtake from that book), it recounts Ferdinand’s recovery from his war wounds in a military hospital. A head injury has caused a ringing in his ears: “Since December 1914 I’ve never stopped sleeping with the atrocious noise. I caught the war in my head. It’s trapped in my head.”
The majority of articles in the French press have pronounced Guerre a masterpiece, a rediscovered treasure. Le Masque et la plume, the venerable literary talk show on French radio, welcomed the publication “like a breath of fresh air…a prodigious literary event…. There I was with a writer…. [Guerre] ruins any book you read after it.” Between the lines, I can hear sighs of relief, for here is a Céline before anti-Semitism, before collaboration, before Holocaust revisionism, as if his defense of himself—“a writer and nothing but a writer”—has finally triumphed, erasing the memory of the pamphlets.
But how good is this writing, really? On page one, the wounded soldier’s left ear is glued to the ground with blood, as is his mouth. Try to imagine how someone’s mouth and ear could both be glued to the ground at the same time, and you’re left with a cartoon face, stretched into one dimension. Flat, short sentences, with a smattering of recognizable Céline effects (the subject at the end of the sentence, or repeated; ça instead of cela), make this novel easy to read—more commercial, paradoxically, than Céline’s difficult fiction of the 1930s.
Sex is everywhere, dispensed by the nurse who services the wounded men with hand jobs, and by Angèle, the whore who sells her ass to support her family. There’s none of the wild tenderness of newly discovered sex in Mort à crédit; the sex here is as miserable and violent and broken as the soldiers. In what passes for a plot, Angèle involves Ferdinand in a scam operation: he’s supposed to hide behind a door while she’s doing her British client, then barge in, play the furious betrayed husband, and storm off, so that Angèle can tell her john she’s in terrible danger of violent recrimination and extract even more money from him. Fake victimhood: a fine allegory of Céline’s own modus vivendi.5
Camus’s The First Man, Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, Proust’s Seventy-Five Pages: the French have developed a taste for “found literature.” Books published decades after the death of the author fascinate, and in each case there’s a literary mystery and a backstory. But the story of the Céline manuscripts revealed by Thibaudat is missing from the preface to Guerre. The heirs, who tried to take legal action against him, had their case dismissed, but in a larger sense they’ve won by erasing one of the oddest and most interesting stories in the annals of literary reception.
Instead, François Gibault, the lawyer for the Céline estate, in his preface to the novel, presents the Céline of the 1940s from on high: “Staff Sergeant Destouches was thus a witness to the Second World War, since Germany and France, these two Christian nations, waited less than twenty years to pounce on one another again.” Whatever you might say about characterizing Germany and France as “Christian nations” (a phrase that could have been written under Vichy), to present Céline as merely an antiwar witness to World War II is preposterous. “The past is a bitch,” he writes in one of the more revealing passages of Guerre, “it melts into reveries. It takes on little melodies on the way, that no one asked for. It comes back to you, gussied up in tears and regrets as it wanders. It isn’t serious.”
With 150,000 copies in bookstores since its publication on May 5,6 Guerre may be the first Céline book read by a generation that lacks the background for understanding what’s at stake. It is serious.
Sources et citations dans “Bagatelles pour un massacre” (Tusson: Lérot, 1987). ↩
“Sea Change: Céline in America,” in Morris Dickstein, A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (Princeton University Press), p. 165. ↩
Nell Stevens, “Should We Stop Reading Into Authors’ Lives and Get Back to Their Books?,” The Guardian, September 10, 2018. ↩
A manuscript page from the Angèle episode is part of a fascinating exhibition of the found manuscripts this summer at the Gallimard Gallery. Its curator, Alban Cerisier (the editor of my Turbulences, USA at Gallimard), whose catalog essay on Guerre would have made for a superior preface, argues that the novel enacts a post-traumatic recovery in which “sexual violence and transgression mark a step toward retaliation and emancipation.” One visitor wrote in the guest book at the gallery, “[Céline] hated war because he’d made war. Hence his choices. Who could blame him now?” In other words, where does Céline’s emancipation leave his readers? ↩
Gallimard’s original print run was 80,000. Guerre is, as of June 10, in its fifth printing. ↩