Should we, as readers, be able to separate an Author and their work, and judge them as two separate entities? I ask this question because recently one of my favourite authors, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, has come under question, as France is debating whether to publish his prewar pamphlets. Why all the fuss? Céline is the author who influenced great writers such as; Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski and is one of the greatest authors of French literacy. Journey to the End of the World is a classic, right?
Well, these pamphlets are collective of many prewar French Antisemitism statements.; he is strongly against Jewish – Bolshevik vermin, he sees Jewish plots all around, and even goes on to praise Hitler.
Now, this isn’t an argument of good vs. evil, whether you’re on the left or right-wing, It’s about ‘should these pamphlets be reprinted’ and if so, why?
Jews Living in France during the 1930’s
First, let’s look at France’s history concerning Nazi Germany and how the rise of Nazism in France became brushed under the mat.
A total of some 76,000 Jews from France, most of them from Paris, among them 11,000 children, were deported by train to the East. Most of the deportees were murdered in Auschwitz. Most of the deportations left France from the concentration camp of Drancy. The deportations continued even as the Allies had begun to liberate France.
As you can see from the figures, France played its part in deporting French Jews over to Auschwitz, a fact that is rarely noted in history books. I bring up these facts to make it clear that there were many a Nazi supporter living in France during the beginning of the War, which brings me back to my original point; was Louis-Ferdinand Céline one of those supporters? And if so, does that a) make his earlier work unjust, and b) mean that we shouldn’t reprint his racist pamphlets?
Let’s tackle the easier of the two options;
point a) – Art as a reflection of one’s self
In my opinion, I’ve always been under the notion that regardless of somebody’s personal views their art will always stand on its own. Take Jeffrey Archer for instance; most people would agree that being found guilty of ‘perjury and perverting the course of justice’, resulting in four years in prison, he isn’t the most respectable of fellows. Then there’s the point that he made up charity totals, a fund to help out with a Kurdish Disaster Fund, to make his work look grander than it was – £57 million his lies totalled to.
Céline’s Racist Booklets
Anyway, I digress that despite these quarrels he has gone on to win several literary awards for both his Fiction and Non-Fiction works. If the awards don’t condemn for bad behaviour then why should you and I? And that’s where I stand on that.
point b) – whether Céline’s leaflets should see the light-of-day again.
Between 1937 and 1941, Louis-Ferdinand Céline produced a collection of booklets, due to their size being up to a thousand pages, made to look like regular paperback books. Inside were the harrowing descriptions of Jews living in France, including the often remarked quote; ‘A dead million stinking Yids was not worth the fingernail of a single Aryan,’ Charming!
Céline stated that the arrival of Germans in France was a ‘necessary tonic’ and his only regret about the war was that it hadn’t been devastating enough. Oh, Céline, ever the grump!
Ever since Céline died in July 1961 (aged 67), his booklets have been left in a somewhat publishers limbo. To reprint or not to reprint, that is the question.
“If you really want to get rid of the Jews then there are not 36,000 remedies: racism! That’s the only thing the Jews are afraid of: racism! And not a little bit with the fingertips but all the way. Totally, inexorably. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”
Speaking as somebody living outside of France, but still, within Europe, it’s easier for me to make the claim that yes, these pamphlets should be reprinted. I repeat, YES they should be reprinted. But before you grab your pitchforks let me explain…
The story began when a far-right magazine, L’Incorrect, published some of Céline’s work. The pieces published were of course extracts from his anti-Semitic texts. With this in mind, there was little to no response to this as most of the magazine readers would be far-right minded individuals who’d largely agree with the statements. However, the story started to gain traction when it was announced that Gallimard, one of the biggest publishing houses in France, would be reprinting the booklets in full. The French people believed that this would place his racist, anti-Jewish writing among the best of French literature, not something you want to answer for.
As a result, you can imagine this news wasn’t popular with the French-Jewish population. Serge Klarsfeld, famous for bringing several Nazi war criminals to justice and a Holocaust survivor himself, stated that the text in question was ‘dangerous and still murderous’.
“Southern zone populated by Mediterranean bastards, degenerate Narbonoids, thugs, spoiled Felibres, Arabian parasites that France would have had every interest in throwing overboard. Below the Loire, nothing but rottenness, laziness, filthy mischief.”
Closing Thoughts on Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Let’s be honest; we’re all fully aware that Céline’s a racist arsehole. Agreed? Good. Let’s continue…
I enjoy Céline’s work as much as anyone’s over the years and I would like to read his booklets, for context more than anything. By no means do I think that the booklets should be given out willy-nilly but I do think that they can be used to educate. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes then we’re doomed to repeat these failings over and over.
To summarise, I think that the French people still feel shame for what happened in their past regarding Nazi involvement and admitting to Antisemitism is a tough one to swallow. If the French people are to move forward then these events need to be acknowledged. As it stands they’re motivated to hide these events rather than take the necessary precautions that come with not having it happen again.
It’s with this that some are willing to read Céline’s booklets in a new critical edition and accept it for what it was, and others would rather hide from it through the fear of facing up to its harsh reality.
So to conclude, yes I do believe we should separate the author from the art. And here I leave you with the words of Baudelaire ‘literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality.’
How do you feel about Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s work? Are his booklets something that you have an interest in reading? Add your thoughts and opinions below to join in the conversation.
Update: April 2018 – Celine’s Bookets have been ceased in production due to social outcry – Guardian
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The Holocaust in France: The Deportation of the Jews from France
«On n’y pense pas assez à cette protection de la race blanche. C’est maintenant qu’il faut agir, parce que demain il sera trop tard. […] Doriot s’est comporté comme il l’a toujours fait. C’est un homme… il faut travailler, militer avec Doriot. […] Cette légion si calomniée, si critiquée, c’est la preuve de la vie. […] Moi, je vous le dis, la Légion, c’est très bien, c’est tout ce qu’il y a de bien”. Interview with Louis-Ferdinand Céline. “Ce que l’auteur du Voyage au bout de la nuit « pense de tout ça »… “, L’Émancipation nationale, 21 novembre 1941, in Cahiers Louis-Ferdinand Céline, n° 8, pp. 134-135.