This blog is mostly about writing and this is the 24th post. It is also the fourth draft, a bad sign. Initially I had thought this would be a kind of swan song, a farewell to the difficulty I have had with the French writer Celine, ever since he first burst into my consciousness in the 1970s. Discovering that one of Celine’s three “anti-semitic” pamphlets had been translated into English, I reckoned that at last I would be able to make up my own mind about what he was on about, to consign him to some pigeonhole or other, and move on.
It hasn’t worked out like that. Reading Bagatelles pour un massacre, translated (anonymously) as Trifles for a massacre, has not settled Celine into a comfortable spot in my spirit, even a little bit. Instead this “pamphlet” – it is nearly 350 pages long – set my mind on a wild ride; yet again this exasperating man has challenged me about fundamentals: about writing, about thinking, ultimately about life itself. I suppose I was foolish to imagine it would be otherwise, that he would not find a way to get under my skin.
There is some sort of explanation for this: Celine used his life as the source material if you like for his fiction, and the life he led put him “out there” – exposed with all his idiosyncracies to very, very public view. The result was a blend of fantasy and reality that is at the very least spectacular. There was nothing easy about him; many of his opinions weren’t just unfashionable but were highly objectionable, offensive even to his adoring public and friends. The painter Gen Paul, a long-time comrade, was so stung by his thinly disguised portrayal in the post-war novel Normance that he was unable ever to trust Celine again: it was almost as if Celine relished the ostracism his writing provoked, yet he complained again and again about how badly he was treated.
Despite the anti-semitism, Celine’s reputation has otherwise recovered in the past generation.
Of course his stature is relative: most people have never heard of him. If you google his name you will get many more hits of Celine Dion. Yet Celine’s rehabilitation if not complete has been nonetheless wholesale: almost all his works have been translated from the original French into English and other languages, he has websites devoted to him, there are photo books of his tumultuous life; you can buy the t-shirt with his photo on it. In his last book he wrote that “in two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school” but perhaps he won’t have to wait that long. Some of his work has been translated as obvious university study material, with English on one page and the original French on the facing page.
Is he worth it? Does he deserve the t-shirt? Until a few years ago, that was impossible to say for anyone reading him in translation, and almost for any Francophone: the writing that caused so much trouble during his life, and had by the deliberate common consent of the literary establishment, in France and elsewhere, been regarded as outside the pale, was no longer easy to get in its original editions and was not (and is not) reprinted, though it is available online.
Now that Bagatelles is available however anyone can see what the fuss was about without taking anyone’s word for it, even if the other two “anti-semitic pamphlets” – Les Beaux Draps (The fine mess) and L’ecole des cadavres (School for corpses) – are still off the menu. Bagatelles is enough to see the basis for Celine’s ostracism. Though he has also been criticised for his activities during the war, in particular letters and interviews he wrote and gave, he denounced some of the material appearing under his name at the time as deliberate forgeries aimed by Germans and collaborators at tying him into support of the Nazis, and pointed the finger at his accusers for collaboration. Notably he gave Sartre, who had once championed him (his first novel, La nausee [Nausea] was prefaced with a quotation from Celine’s play, L’eglise, The Church), a very rough time: his reply to Sartre can be found on the net.
It is also true – though it doesn’t say anything for or against Celine – that collaboration was widespread in France during the German occupation, that protest was at best muted when Jews were deported to be slaughtered in the camps, and that attacks on collaborators and alleged collaborators have more than a tinge of a guilty conscience.
Celine answered the charges against him after the war with characteristic invective and claimed in his last book that he was, and had always been, an anarchist, and it is hard to square his supposed support for Nazism with some of his remarks about Hitler and “Aryan baloney”.
In spite of all this, it seems to me to be a kind of sideshow, a distraction. What is proper with a writer is to look at her or his work as literature, to read it on its own terms, whatever these may be, before interposing judgment on even the most outrageous ideas. Judgment, to be fair, has to come later. So what my plan here is, is to treat Bagatelles as literature, to examine it, and its arguments, from that perspective. Celine was a genius without doubt, and to respond to his genius we really need to approach his work seriously, and not to dismiss anything at all out of hand.
On any level Bagatelles is an incredible book. It is often screamingly funny, and its many barbs are frequently sharp and pointed in the right ways: his attacks on French drunkenness and on the Soviet Union must have made uncomfortable reading for French intellectuals – indeed French people – when Bagatelles was first published, but for the first he makes a striking and well-documented case, and for the second its truth is now widely acknowledged.
That is very far from all. Celine rips through the French literary establishment with customary vigour, and his analysis of global fiction is interesting and perceptive. His denunciation of the modern media is also, to paraphrase John Major, “not entirely without merit”.
Schematically Bagatelles is an advance on his previous novels because it takes the “novel as delirium” another step: whereas Mort a Credit retains the formal fictional structure of a novel, Bagatelles begins as a novel only to transpose into non-fiction – maybe. Ferdinand becomes Celine, becomes Ferdinand. This is artfully contrived.
All this however skirts around Celine’s core themes. As the title suggests Bagatelles sees the coming conflict with Germany and seeks to persuade France to avoid it, to refuse to become embroiled in war with Germany. (As an aside, when he “lost the argument”, he volunteered immediately and became a ship’s doctor on a vessel that was sunk in the early days of the war.).
And it does this from a perspective that is both astonishing and alarming. It turns out that there is a global conspiracy, and that the French aspect of this conspiracy has the Jews undermining everything in a grand plan to take over the world. Everywhere he looks, Ferdinand/Celine finds the dread hand of the Jew…not just finance, but communism! not just politics but film, not just film but the editorial policies of newspapers and book publishers, not just that but the vineyards debauching the French nation, not just that but…there is nowhere the Jew is not judging, scheming, conniving, thwarting…thrusting France into a cataclysm with Germany, when if there is an enemy, it is the Soviet Union. He has been there, and seen what it is really like, and it is not pretty.
And the greatest undermining of all – of the ethnicity of the French people. What scheming wee creeps can’t achieve, sex will…later in his life, Celine imagined the Chinese taking over (“the Chinese in Brest”) and achieving the same magical result: no more France, no more French (he then called the French “Vrounzais” to show the bastardisation of “French blood” by immigrants).
Celine constructs this argument far more cunningly than I have managed to make it seem here. He has a Jewish friend to show that he does not conflate every single Jew with the “Jewish conspiracy”, and even has this friend slagging off “the Jews” with the same invective Celine will later employ; his Jewish boss in the League of Nations gets equal measure of brickbat and bouquet: he takes care, that is, to distinguish the individual, the personal, from the “ism” even as he mocks this view, and mocks himself for holding it!
The friend shows true friendship too, and ends warning Ferdinand/Celine of the consequences of his irrational attacks on “the Jews”, just as does his non-Jewish artist mate.
To Jewish people what is not highly offensive about this is not worth thinking about, but those who should be most offended are the French. Indeed, whatever crimes Celine may find to lay at the door of the Jews are as nothing compared to the weakness and uselessness of the French people. So the Jews are in control of the alcohol industry? Who makes French people drink it? (Celine became a teetotaller at some stage).* The Jews are in control of the French novel, of French literature and literary journals, and the international fiction markets? Who makes anyone read the output? See the films? Go to the theatre? The ballet? Celine goes on and on and on about the fecklessness of the French, their hopelessness…their uselessness…the truth as he recounts it is that the French are too weak to resist. It is already too late.
And this is the contradiction in Celine’s account of reality: the massacre he seeks to avoid is already pre-ordained, and the plea he makes is already certain to be ignored, by his own testimony.
Worse, the vision he evokes to avoid the impending slaughter is in itself flawed. Who are these “French”? There is no static “French nation” any more than any other “nation”; the France of Celine’s time had a different ethnic mix and geographical extent than fifty years before, and fifty years before that and before that…One can find maps of “France” stretching to the banks of the Rhine, and if one looks back far enough, maps of France taking in England! That is to say, the “French people” have been a mixture of peoples more or less forever, so what is the big deal with adding new elements? Er, none whatsoever. Celine claimed, over and over, that he didn’t mind Jews as long as they stayed out of France. He saw Jews as “negroid” people, and he said he didn’t mind blacks on the same basis. He had a great time in Africa and the only thing he didn’t like was “tom-tom” music (presumably referring to the jazz of his time); he just wanted Africans to stay in Africa, and Jews to stay in Palestine.
People don’t behave like that and it is impossible not to think that Celine knew this as well as anyone. Later he described warfare as “movements of peoples”, and his “Chinese in Brest” remark was more aware than anti-semitism allows.
Celine wanted to be judged on the basis of his “novel as delirium”, even when he didn’t mean it. It was clever, indeed ingenious, but in this sense a failure. He could say, “Bagatelles comprises the delirious ravings of a paranoid man and should not be taken seriously as argument”**, but there is far too much serious argument in it for that claim to succeed. The section on drunkenness for example, is crammed with facts and shows evident research, and the sections on literature and fellow writers far from crazed. It is in this sense, ultimately, that Bagatelles is a failure: as literature. It was a bold and even courageous attempt to push ahead a theory of writing that Celine had already established as his own, but he allowed his real preoccupations to get in the way.
This supposed pamphlet is nearly 350 pages long, and many of the “arguments” in it are repeated, when the new versions add little if anything. Even the (very funny) jokes are repeated, embellished and elaborated, but too worn for effect. If Celine were writing today, using a PC with all the text editing tools available to anyone able to “hunt and peck” on a keyboard and use a mouse, he very well may have delivered a much different text to his reading public. There seems to this reader to be a great deal of “draft” in Bagatelles, as if Celine was keen to get the thing out and couldn’t be bothered going through proofs and rewriting again and again. And it is precisely in those parts that are the most offensive that the most repetition is found – it is as if he couldn’t be sure which bit bit better so left them all in, hoping the teeth would not seem worn by the end.
After his excursion into politics, Celine’s writing became overelaborated; his impressionistic and emotional colouration became too much really. It took nearly a decade before he realised this wasn’t working and retreated to a more restrained style, that was all the more elegant and eloquent for it. Before he published Normance, the second part of Fable for another time, he seemed to believe that it would be welcomed by his public as a great literary advance. To me, it is almost unreadable.
Bagatelles is not unreadable. Its anti-semitic diatribes are unfortunate, in that on any level, from argument through to art, they fail. In my second novel, Evilheart, the protagonist argues that the “petit bourgois” foundation of anti-semitism enfeebles anti-semitic art and that writers and others’ anti-semitism shows through in their work as weakness, and never as strength. The argument traverses Wagner – a notorious anti-semite – and painters including Cezanne and Degas, both “anti-Dreyfusards”, seeing in the former a willingness to put this view aside when picking up the brush, and in the latter a more limited palette: Degas lost important patrons because of his refusal to stop propagandising on behalf of those who believed Dreyfus guilty.*** Celine started out as Degas, and finished, shall we say, as Cezanne. In a later interview he said he got involved in things that were none of his business, “to do with the Jews”.
But he did not resile, or recant; he never changed. He just left it out, referring to the trouble he had got into, but not, as with the three “pamphlets”, foaming at the mouth over the Jewish cabal. Yet the anti-semitism and the amazing insights into life as it is lived by all of us, that “life of quiet desperation” as the American Thoreau put it, live cheek by jowl. They can’t really be separated in this man: where he succeeded as a writer he transformed this kind of hatred into a generalised hatred, and he transformed his beliefs into general ones, not about France, not about Jews, but about life. In these passages, and these themes, and they are many, he remains one of the greatest writers ever.
Anti-semitism is a characteristic of the petit-bourgeois milieu in any society – those people who are not “workers” and who despise them, and who envy, fear and hate those above them. Celine mined these emotions in ways never before seen, and handled since but awkwardly. Evilheart‘s protagonist has Celine’s characters ending up “at the wrong end of the pool cue”. ass in the air and about to get reamed…in Bagatelles Celine frequently speaks of a gnat being reamed by an elephant…the way I feel about him, when he’s on about life he has transcended his background to speak universal truth, and when he is on about Jews he has succumbed to it.
Bagatelles begins and ends with ballet scripts the author hopes to have staged.**** Later on, these and others were published with the tongue-in-cheek title Ballets without music, without dancers, without anything. So far as I know, no music has ever been written for them and they have never been performed. Not all of them are great, but the ones in Bagatelles are not at all bad, and it would be interesting to see them produced.
When I first encountered Celine, he was liberating to me, both in a literary and a personal sense. He stood up and took the hits for the most incredible ideas, and he could write like no one else had ever written. His sad verdict on life was tempered by a kind of perverse optimism – “So life is futile. What are you going to do about it?”
Celine’s paradoxical answer to that question is found in Bagatelles. It is a tragic answer, futility piled on futility. His motives may have been sick, and even evil, but he gains full marks in my book for the courage he showed then and after. This has been a great lesson for me, and I am still thinking about it.
* There is some evidence that Celine was an alcoholic, or had alcoholic tendencies, and that he stopped drinking as a result. In his second novel his character is shall we say led astray by drink, and by the time of Bagatelles Celine is anti-drink; in his last trilogy he says more than once that he drinks only water.
**This is me putting words into Celine’s mouth.
***Any good biography of Degas will recount his attitudes; Evilheart goes on about what it meant for his art.
****Naturally, the Jews stand in the way…in Paris as in Russia…