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Cashing In on Céline’s Anti-Semitism

Agnès Poirier
Céline is considered one of the greatest French novelists and stylists of the twentieth century. He is also recognized as a vile anti-Semite, xenophobe, misogynist, misanthropist, and early pro-Nazi.

François Pages/Paris Match via Getty Images

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Meudon, France, 1957

On December 12, Antoine Gallimard, head of the illustrious French publishing house founded by his grandfather Gaston in 1919, received a letter from the French prime minister’s office. It was signed by Frédéric Potier, head of the prime minister’s “delegation in charge of fighting racism, anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT hatred.” It was a polite but firm invitation to meet. In fact, the French government was summoning a French publisher to ask the company to justify its decision to publish a certain book.

Such an occurrence is extremely rare. But the nature of the book in question, and its author’s identity, explain the intense scrutiny. Gallimard proposed to publish this year a book edition of three virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets by Louis-Ferdinand Céline that were written and published between 1937 and 1941, and that have never since been reissued in France: Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’école des cadavres, and Les beaux draps.

Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

The front cover of Bagatelles pour un massacre, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 1941

Alongside Marcel Proust, Céline is considered one of the greatest French novelists and stylists of the twentieth century, notably for his 1932 masterpiece, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). He is also recognized as a vile anti-Semite, xenophobe, misogynist, misanthropist, and early pro-Nazi who nourished the general defeatist spirit before and during the war and who, through his writings and articles, infused into French society a deeply insidious anti-Semitism. 

A few days after the Normandy landings, knowing only too well that he would be either assassinated by résistants or condemned to death for treason by a new Gaullist or communist government, he fled France together with a thousand unrepentant French collaborators, one of whom was Marshal Pétain, the leader of the collaborationist Vichy government. With the help of Nazi occupiers, these fugitives absconded to the Sigmaringen Castle in the Swabian Alps of southern Germany. In March 1945, Céline and his wife, Lucette, then found refuge in Denmark, where they stayed until 1951, when Céline was assured he could return to France without fear for his life—although a French court had, in the meantime, condemned him in absentia as a “national disgrace.” Having already served a spell in prison in Denmark at France’s behest, Céline was allowed to return home, settling in leafy Meudon, just outside Paris.

After his own publisher, Robert Denoël, a well-known Nazi collaborator, was assassinated in Paris in mysterious circumstances in December 1945 (to this day, his murder remains unsolved), Céline moved to Éditions Gallimard, which continued to publish his work until his death in 1961. Céline left explicit instructions that his three anti-Semitic pamphlets were not be reprinted—a wish that, until very recently, his still-living widow had respected. Now, however, at the age of 105, Lucette seems to have had a change of heart. A few months ago, she reached an agreement with Gallimard that it would reissue the works, using a French-Canadian edition of the texts available in Quebec, where Céline’s writings have already fallen into public domain. (In France, literary works enter the public domain seventy years after the author’s death; in Canada, after only fifty.) After all, since the material was already available in French, why leave French readers to buy it from a Canadian publisher when Gallimard and Céline’s widow could benefit from the sales for another fifteen years?

Thus, on December 19, a week after receiving his official summons, Antoine Gallimard went to 55, rue Saint-Dominique on the Left Bank in Paris to meet the head of the prime minister’s antiracism unit. From Gallimard’s office, at 5, rue Sébastien-Bottin, it is but a brisk ten-minute walk through the 7th arrondissement, an elegant quarter comfortably sequestered from the bustle of the world. By a certain historical irony, the delegation’s office stands right next to the former German Institute where, during the war, Gerhard Heller, the young Sonderführer in charge of monitoring French literary publishing, regularly met with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, the extreme-right author appointed by Gaston Gallimard to appease the Nazi occupiers. 

During their meeting, Potier told Gallimard that the first French reprint of Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets in nearly eight decades should be done in the spirit of education, rather than in one of sensation; he proposed that the original texts should be accompanied by in-depth exegesis, and put into context by interdisciplinary scholars and historians. Potier had in mind, perhaps, the very scholarly “critical edition” of Mein Kampf that enabled the recent reissue of Hitler’s work in Germany for the first time since the war.

Antoine Gallimard, accompanied by the Jewish writer and historian Pierre Assouline, who is writing a preface to the new edition, politely refused. For them, Céline’s texts belong to literature and do not need more than a literary critic’s preface and notes. In their eyes, the French-Canadian edition, which has notes by a Céline expert named Régis Tettamanzi, is sufficient. 


Although it is very unlikely that the French government will seek to ban the book, a growing chorus of prominent voices—among them, historians, politicians, and Holocaust survivors—have already threatened legal action against Gallimard. One of them, the well-known Nazi hunter and French lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, deemed Gallimard’s project “unbearable.” Other voices, though, argue that it is better to reprint the work with the addition of critical context than to let people access the plain texts online, where illicit versions are available.

Then, on January 4, Le Monde revealed that the Canadian publisher, Rémi Ferland, had openly supported Marine Le Pen in the last year’s French presidential elections, with public postings on his Facebook page. The Le Monde report also pointed out how this particular edition exhibited a worrying vagueness, even a nonchalance, about the way its notes and commentary addressed Céline’s pathological anti-Semitism. Even naming this collection of pamphlets “Écrits polémiques” (polemical writings), as the French-Canadian edition does, is insidious, declared Le Monde. In France today, anti-Semitism is considered a crime, not simply an opinion. When far-right writers, politicians, and comedians are convicted in French courts for incitement to hatred and anti-Semitism, why should Gallimard be permitted to reissue anti-Semitic diatribes? For Serge Klarsfeld, this is an untenable discrepancy.

Amid the heated debate, however, few voices have questioned Gallimard’s motive for publication. Why the urgency, and without a more carefully prepared edition? It is hard to avoid the impression that the publisher seems chiefly interested in making a quick profit. Considering the rise of anti-Semitism in the country and the heightened tension between France’s large Muslim and Jewish communities, the wisdom of the French publisher and its sense of responsibility seem questionable.

One explanation for Gallimard’s ambiguous conduct can be found in the firm’s history. During the war, some publishers chose to close down rather than collaborate with the Nazi occupation, while others—like Gallimard—decided to remain open and negotiate with the German authorities. Appointing an outspoken fascist writer like Drieu La Rochelle to a crucial position at Gallimard pleased the Nazi overseers and created a clever smokescreen—for the résistants, too, were operating from the offices of Gallimard. One was the long-time editor of the literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française, Jean Paulhan. The two writers’ tiny offices stood next to each other. How could they cohabitate? Easily enough, it turned out: such was Paris during the Occupation, a place of moral ambiguity, of cowardice, treason, and courage living side by side. Drieu the collaborator and Paulhan the résistant coexisted without rancor, their love of literature cementing their mutual respect. For four years, they published both rightist and leftist authors under the noses of the Nazis. For them, as for Gaston Gallimard, one thing only counted above all else: the talent of the writer.

These were, however, extraordinary times. In a short essay published in London in 1945 entitled “Paris sous l’occupation” (“Paris Under the Occupation”), Jean-Paul Sartre tried to explain it: “Everybody was going about their day like sleepwalkers, carrying their fate over their shoulder like a sling bag, toothbrush and soap in one’s pocket, just in case of an arrest. We all lived in transit, between two round-­ups, two hostage-­takings, and two misunderstandings.” Today, though, Gallimard’s morally ambiguous attitude has no justification. Its urge to re-issue the violently anti-Semitic prose that Céline himself did not want to reprint is questionable; its decision to do so quickly and carelessly was even more dubious.

The storm has forced Gallimard to reconsider its plan to reprint the French-Canadian edition. On January 11, the publisher made a surprise announcement, reversing its previous position and suspending publication of the pamphlets. In a statement, Antoine Gallimard said the correct “methodological and memorial conditions” that would enable Céline’s notorious work to be read “dispassionately” did not exist at present—a formulation that appeared to concede that reprinting the French-Canadian edition would be inappropriate, while leaving the door open for a more scholarly edition at a future date. Gallimard’s decision is welcome, but the habit of ambiguity, it seems, dies hard.

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