To publish or not to publish. That has always been the question when it comes to Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
In a culture that adores its writers the way mothers adore their sons, the late French novelist inspires a special, almost unparalleled, reverence. There are those who will tell you that “Journey to the End of the Night,” his hallucinatory 1932 novel, revolutionized not only the French language, but the sentence.
Yet Céline, who died in 1961, was also something else: an avowed and obsessive anti-Semite. He cheered as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, and in the years after the Nazi leader cemented control in 1933, Céline published three book-length pamphlets that rank among the most virulently anti-Jewish texts in any language. Even the Nazis found them a touch too lurid: Céline had "correct racial notions," one propaganda official remarked, but his "savage, filthy slang" was beyond the pale.
Since the end of World War II, those three infamous works have been unavailable in France, save for dark corners of the Internet. In the spring of 2018, they are to be rereleased for the first time, following the authorization of Céline's widow, Lucette Destouches, still alive at 105. For decades, she has forbidden their publication, but recently — for reasons no one quite knows — she changed her mind. Gallimard, an eminent French publishing house, has taken on the project.
The reaction has been swift and forceful.
When news of the plan broke this month, the French government immediately intervened, demanding to know in what form the pamphlets would be published and with what, if any, contextual commentary. Prominent French Jewish leaders voiced outrage and vowed to fight the publication. Literary scholars, for their part, have decried what many see as a rushed project that would take years to carry out properly. For many, the question is why — and why now.
"What I don't want is an anti-Semitic bestseller," Frédéric Potier, head of the French government's interministerial delegation against racism and anti-Semitism, said in an interview. He insisted that the letter he sent to Gallimard on Dec. 12 was not an attempt at censorship but a means of ensuring that precautions would be taken to guarantee the "scientific nature" of the project.
Gallimard's plans remain vague. After rumors began circulating, the publishing house confirmed to the French media that it would be releasing a single volume tentatively titled "Écrits Polémiques," or "Polemical Writings," which will contain the three notorious pamphlets: "Bagatelles pour un massacre," or "Trifles for a Massacre" (1937); "L'École des cadavres," or "The School for Corpses" (1938);, and "Les Beaux draps," or "A Fine Mess" (1941).
Further details seem to be under lock and key. Régis Tettamanzi, the literary scholar slated to edit the new collection, declined to comment. Tettamanzi edited a similar 2012 edition that was released in Quebec but never in France.
For the government, even the new volume’s proposed title is problematic. The term “polemical,” Potier said, clearly suggests a matter of opinion.
“In France, racism is not an opinion. It’s a crime,” he said. “Simply put, these [pamphlets] are not literature. These are calls to hate. The risk is that it reinforces prejudice, that it reinforces things you can already see on the Internet — and especially among right-wing extremists.”
That is also the position of French Jewish leaders, who point to a climate of anti-Semitism here.
In France’s recent presidential election, 34 percent of voters ultimately supported the National Front, the extreme-right party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier. Allegations of continued Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic views clouded the candidacy of Le Pen’s daughter, Marine. French Jews also express concern about manifestations of anti-Semitism in certain segments of France’s Muslim population, especially immigrant youths. Violent incidents targeting Jews or Jewish sites are regularly reported.
"That academics should study this book to understand it, or go to the library to consult it — that's not a problem," Serge Klarsfeld, 82, a lifelong Nazi hunter, said in an interview with the French magazine L'Obs, formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur. "But just imagine. We could go into a bookstore and find it on the shelves. That I find intolerable."
For scholars, however, the issue is what, exactly, these polarizing pamphlets are.
In the late 1980s, Alice Kaplan, an acclaimed scholar of French literature now at Yale University, revealed that much of the content of the three works had been lifted from other sources and quoted liberally without attribution. Further fueling questions about the pamphlets’ actual historical significance is the fact that they also recycled widely used anti-Semitic cliches.
“There are two ways to read these plagiarized texts,” Kaplan said in a telephone interview. “One is to understand Céline’s milieu — here we have a guy who was trying to pass on ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ to the French” — a reference to the 19th-century anti-Semitic tract, later exposed as a fabrication, that was embraced by Hitler.
“But on another level, you can see the pamphlets as a bizarre writing workshop, almost a laboratory. He puts the reader right on the spot, in a modernist universe where you’re right there with him in the moment, reading over his shoulder, watching him getting outraged and building his collage,” she said. “If you read the pamphlets, you can see Céline evolving as a writer. But, of course, he was using poison to do it.”
To document all the extreme and obscure sources Céline drew on in these pamphlets — as well as to correct all the untruths he circulated — is a massive undertaking, said Pierre-André Taguieff, a historian and co-author with his wife, Annick Duraffour, of a 1,182-page study of Céline's understanding of Jews and the concept of race that was published this year. It would be impossible to deliver an appropriate edition as early as May, he said.
Whatever happens with the current project, all of Céline’s writings will enter the public domain in 2031, 70 years after the author’s death. For Taguieff, that means there is no need to rush publication of the pamphlets; rather, he advocates a “responsible,” painstaking approach.
“We live in a society where information is free, a liberal democracy with a digital world where there is no real regulation on the circulation of texts,” he said. “The best is thus to do a proper edition. Doing anything else is extremely dangerous.”