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Oliver Kamm

One French literary hero needs to be forgotten

Ferdinand Celine’s bigotry is explicit in his books so his literary reputation must pay the price

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September 24, 2021 13:00

Imagine if the manuscript of an unpublished novel by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf was discovered in some mildewed archive. Or indeed two or three novels. It would be a cultural event of historic importance.

Something like that has just happened in the world of French literature. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who died in 1961, ranks among its greatest 20th century figures. The best-known of his works are his early novels Voyage au bout de la nuit (“Journey to the End of Night”), published in 1932, and Mort à crédit (“Death on the Instalment Plan”), from 1936. Céline draws on his experiences as a doctor during the First World War, and vividly depicts the misery of the human condition and the futility of hopes for progress.

English editions of these novels have appeared in outstanding translations by Ralph Manheim. Céline’s output also includes a postwar trilogy of novels recounting his exile towards the end of the Second World War. And there is much else. Le Monde reported last month the discovery and authentication of a stash of handwritten manuscripts by Céline. These comprise three unpublished novels, novellas, letters and other items, and they run to around 6,000 pages.

But the reason this archive went missing in the first place will tell you why the find is morally problematic. Céline was a virulent antisemite who, with his wife, went into hiding as Allied armies approached Paris in 1944. They fled to Nazi Germany for sanctuary and for a while were housed, along with the remnants of the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshall Philippe Pétain, in a castle in the town of Sigmaringen. This was why the manuscripts were lost. Céline had to abandon most of them as he escaped, and they disappeared when his flat in Montmartre was looted. Now they have turned up. The route is unclear but there is no doubting where Céline stood on the central moral question of the age. In the struggle of democracy against totalitarianism, he was on the wrong side.

Nor is there any doubt about what motivated Céline. He was possessed of a furious hatred. He wrote three pamphlets between 1937 and 1941 that supported Hitler and attacked the Jews. This was not the type of drawing-room antisemitism that you find in the work of, say, Evelyn Waugh. It was wild-eyed conspiracy theory, in which he saw the corrupting hand of Jews everywhere: in finance, industry, the media, education and much else. He lumped in, among others, Queen Elizabeth (mother of our current Queen), Wallis Simpson and Pope Pius XII as instruments of international Jewry.

Céline was lucky to escape France with his life: many other collaborators were summarily executed. He was sentenced to a fine and the forfeiture of half his assets in his absence, and served a year in jail in Denmark, but returned to France in 1951. He was granted an amnesty, and his literary reputation has burgeoned since his death.

It is a cardinal principle of artistic criticism that aesthetic values are independent of ethical ones. Wagner is unquestionably one of Europe’s greatest cultural figures even though his work (consider the dwarves in Das Rheingold) is inextricably linked with antisemitism. But Céline is an especially perplexing case. His bigotry is not incidental to his writing but explicit within it, and some critical writing on Céline doesn’t properly address this.

Though the Vichy regime is inexorably slipping beyond human memory, it is still recent history. Céline’s widow and staunch defender, Lucette Detouches, died less than three years ago, at the age of 107. And the Vichy’s disrepute cannot be emphasised enough. It deported more than 75,000 Jews, of whom fewer than 2,000 survived the war. Yet some commentators still choose to look away from this monstrous record.

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, received respectful obituaries on his death last year. These made no reference to his book In Defence of Aristocracy, published in 2004, where he lauded the Vichy regime as “a blessing in disguise”, for it purportedly healed the divisions of the French Revolution. There are, believe me, French conservatives who hold the same view.

In short, there is a problem with the resurrection of Céline’s reputation, for it is impossible to disentangle his literary work from his noisome politics.

When Peter Handke, the Austrian author, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019, my newspaper, The Times, immediately denounced the decision as a disgrace that would never wash away. We did so because the work thus honoured included Handke’s defences of the Milosevic regime in Serbia and its genocidal aggression against Bosnian Muslims.

There are times when celebrating a literary reputation occludes basic decency. And so it is in the case of Céline.

September 24, 2021 13:00
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