Published on December 27th in The Washington Post
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.
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