Having read most of Céline’s major works, some minor works and a biography or two I am well aware of the reputation that he has acquired as an anti-Semitic writer. But you would not realise this if you had only read his first novels, Journey to the End of the Night(1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) or if you had read his post-war books; in these all you would encounter is Céline bitching about being victimised and barely escaping being killed at the end of the Second World War. However, when we read the notes and biographies on Céline we discover that he wrote some anti-Semitic ‘pamphlets’ prior to the war and held views sympathetic to the Nazis; whether he was a collaborator is debatable but his views and actions during this period are highly dubious. I had often wondered what he actually wrote in these pamphlets, having only come across a few quotations from these books, and so after finding a translation of the first pamphlet on the internet I decided to find out for myself.
First some background: After publishing his first two novels Céline visited the Soviet Union, apparently a lot of left-wing authors did the same in this period, and on his return he published Mea Culpa (1936) which was an attack on the Soviet Union. Although he wasn’t really a left-wing author his first novels were applauded by the left, who saw him as ‘one of them’. But Céline was disgusted with what he saw on his trip to Russia and he felt he had to let people know about the shortcomings of the Soviet Union. A little later, in 1937, he feverishly wrote Bagatelles pour un massacre over a few months and it was published in December of that year—this was the first of his anti-Semitic pamphlets. Céline would write two more anti-Semitic pamphlets, L’École des cadavres (School for Corpses) (1938) and Les Beaux Draps (A Nice Mess) (1941) (n.b. although they’re called pamphlets, with the exception of Mea Culpa, they’re book length publications). With the Allied troops approaching Paris, Céline feared for his life and fled with Nazi collaborators across Europe to Denmark where he was imprisoned. He finally returned to France in 1951 where he continued to publish books such as Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon.Céline’s wife has forbidden the republication of the anti-Semitic pamphlets in France and they have never been officially translated into English. However an English translation of Bagatelles was made available in 2006 over the internet; this was translated anonymously and published by AAARGH. Given the nature of the work it is a good idea to know something about the publishers; from Wikipedia I found that AAARGH stands for Association des Anciens Amateurs de Récits de Guerres et d’Holocaustes or in English Association of Former Fans of War and Holocaust Stories, i.e. they publish works by Holocaust deniers and their website has been shutdown by the French authorities. So, although we have to be wary of the motives of those publishing this work, if we wish to read any of it in English then it is all we have. The translation is, as far as I can tell, very well done and the author of an article for the New York Review of Books describes it as an ‘anonymous but largely accurate translation’. Now, I can understand Céline’s wife not wanting these to be reprinted so not to add to current-day anti-Semitism and also to try to protect her husband’s legacy but for anyone that has read any of Céline’s work it can be confusing knowing that he has this reputation but not actually being able to read, ‘first-hand’, any of these books and it is natural that we should wish to read, at least part of these, so we may judge them for ourselves. Well, that was how I felt before embarking on this book.
Given that in 1937 Céline had published two well-received novels, the question arises as to why he felt the need to publish such books. There was no obvious anti-Semitism or racism in these early novels and he seemed to be destined for great things. For me, the trip to Russia seems to be pivotal, but even this is strange because he wasn’t really a ‘party-man’ or a Communist before he took the trip so it wasn’t as if his faith in Communism was shattered by the experience. And why suddenly turn on the Jewish people? It seems that, for some reason, with Communism no longer a viable option he turned to the opposite ideology, fascism, which had a convenient scapegoat for France’s problems as well as Céline’s personal problems—the Jews. In Bagatelles anyone that Céline disapproves of, dislikes, or hates is called a Jew and is therefore part of the problem. But where did this anti-Semitism come from and why did it burst forth from Céline at this particular moment? In Bagatelles Ferdinand (Céline’s fictional alter ego) visits his friend and exults ‘…I had become an anti-Semite, and not just a little bit just for levity, but ferociously unto my very kidneys!’. It seems to come from nowhere.
In his biography of Céline, Frédéric Vitoux tries to answer the question of why, and how, Céline became anti-Semitic and comes up with six possible reasons. Some are rather tenuous so I shall mention only some; he grew up in an anti-Semitic France, he was born whilst the Dreyfus case was at its height and was undoubtedly comfortable with the views of anti-Semites; he could blame Jews for his own personal failures such as his ex-wife running off with a Jewish (as Céline believed him to be) man, his antagonisms with the Jewish (as Céline believed them to be) left, rejections of work being attributed to Jews etc.; he was a pacifist, and having been injured in WWI he wanted to avoid another war at all costs—he saw Jews, not Hitler, as the warmongers; he was disgusted by the decadence of the French people, whom he saw as little better than alcoholics and sexual perverts and so he identified with Hitler’s concepts of the pure Aryan race. I would add that it’s obvious in Céline’s works that he is naturally paranoid and delusional and that the idea of a Jewish conspiracy directed against himself and the French people must have been overwhelming. Céline loved to rant and this gave him a perfect target. He was also unable to understand the effects that his writing would have on people; Vitoux states:
He was barely aware of the effects of his writing. Why was Ludwig Rajchman upset by L’Église? Why were the Jews after him when the war ended? He seemed astonished because he really was astonished.
Bagatelles is a delirious, vile, mess of a book, in which Céline endlessly attacks Jews and accuses them of every crime under the sun. I shall include some quotations from the book to give a flavour of its contents. You may not feel like reading all of them but the first quotation probably sums up the author’s view that everything is controlled by Jews:
The world is a Corporation, a Trust in which the Jews own all of the shares. The Trust has subsidiaries: “Communism”…”Monarchism”…”Democracy” and maybe even “Fascism”.
On the Wikipedia page on Céline it is claimed that he stated, in 1944, that he believed that Hitler had been replaced by a Jewish double. It’s sometimes difficult to know when to take Céline seriously and when he’s been absurd just for the hell of it. Contemporary reviewers had the same problem with this book, André Gide seemed to think it was all a big joke, but others weren’t so sure. So, as far as Céline believes, the Jews control everything, not just in France but in the Soviet Union as well:
The Bolshevik Revolution is another story! Infinitely complex! Everything existing as structures within structures, and behind the scenes. And in that backstage are the Jews in command, the absolute masters. Stalin is only a front-man, like Lebrun, like Roosevelt, like Clemenceau. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution can be understood, in its long run, only as having been of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews…
So, for Céline, all communists are Jews or controlled by Jews. So what about democracies?
The Jew is a dictator at heart, twenty-five times worse than Mussolini. Democracy is always and above all nothing but the veil of the Jewish Dictatorship.
He criticises the Jewish people of claiming to be victims, martyrs:
The great martyrdom of the Jewish race is a phenomenal fake…which works on the Christians, forever gullible, bird-brained and enthusiastic cuckolds…two million martyrs in France alone,…
But Céline constantly portrays the French Aryans as victims or martyrs with the Jews as oppressors.
Ever since the Dreyfus Affair the cause has been buried, and France belongs to the Jews, to the globalistic Jews, body, heart and soul. They dominate completely—France is a colony of the international Jewish power, and any grass-roots rebellion is doomed in advance to ignominious failure…
And it goes on, there’s worse, much worse, Céline calls for pogroms in France and for ways of identifying Jews through a registration system where all Jews are given numbers instead of names, and so on and so on. So, I’m a third of the way through this book and I’m not sure whether to continue reading; this book has had a numbing effect on me similar to my reading of de Sade—both Céline and de Sade bludgeon the reader with their obsessions.
But reading Bagatelles has been informative in that it has helped me understand why he was so reviled after the war by many people though I don’t think it will affect my appreciation of his other works as I already knew prior to reading them of his reputation. If anyone still wants to read Bagatelles then it is available on the Internet Archive website. There is also a blog site with a translation of School for Corpses. In writing this post I came across an interesting review from the New York Review of Books site, which was mentioned above, and I also found out that there has been a recent film about Céline that focuses on when he was in exile and corresponded with a Jewish writer called Milton Hindus; the film is called Louis-Ferdinand Céline : Deux Clowns Pour Une Catastrophe.
Céline never apologised for writing his pamphlets and he never tried to retract what he’d written in them. I haven’t seen any comment by him on the Holocaust in any of his post-war books and he remained silent on the subject of the Jewish people, leading us to believe that his views on this subject remained unchanged. In his post-war books he doesn’t mention Jews but he does lash out at people like Sartre who were heavily critical of him and his views. But it is worth considering whether anything can be said in Céline’s defence, so here are a few thoughts; Céline was a pacifist and in writing the pamphlets he had wanted to prevent another world war, however misguided his approach was; He attacked Jews in an abstract sense, the word ‘Jew’ for Céline in these works became a euphemism for everything that was bad in the world so at times it is unclear whether he’s raging against Jews or the world in general—he was an anti-Semite but was that because he was an extreme misanthrope?; he wasn’t a member of the Nazi party or other right-wing parties and it is debatable to what degree he collaborated with the Nazis, if at all; although Céline wrote the pamphlets and must take the responsibility for them, those close to him didn’t try to stop him, his publisher published the work without quibbling and the public bought it—Bagatelles sold out quickly and by the end of the war had sold 75,000 copies—it was very popular and Céline, unfortunately, wasn’t the only one who held these views.