Céline on Race and Jews
[The following is taken from chapter 12 of Céline: A Biography, by Frédéric Vitoux. Marlowe & Company, New York. 1994. pp. 313-334.]
30 August 2004
France was largely anti-Semitic before the war. Lucien Rebatet, an expert, stated it, and Robert Brasillach sanctimoniously elaborated upon it in Notre Avant-guerre in 1941: "Blum's accession to ministerial power even revived a movement almost unseen in France since the Dreyfus Affair -- I am speaking of anti-Semitism." Was this their way of justifying, and banalizing racism? Perhaps. But the facts remain, and sociologists and historians of the Third Republic or anti-Semitism in France will confirm it: the lower-middle and working classes, the Camelots du Roi, and even certain communists or ex-communists of Doriot's Parti Populaire Francais were often anti-Semitic, instinctively, out of habit. There was no ideology in their attitude. Nazi theories were and continued to be foreign and incomprehensible to them. Their anti-Semitism was primarily a question of reflex, a mood; of ill-humor, of immediate advantage and smug chauvinism.
Blum's accession to power, then, rekindled in many their xenophobic tendencies, a latent hatred of Jews all the more readily expressed since it involved no commitment, since France had not seen pogroms or mass persecution for centuries. It was therefore easy to rant, requiring little thought. One could proclaim one's fear of war, disgust with politics, rejection of disorder, indignation against politicians, resentment of poverty, all thanks to the most visible and eternal scapegoat: the Jew. Blum in power was a godsend. It explained everything. There was no need to seek any further, beyond the Rhine, or to worry about Adolf Hitler's bellicose provocations, no need to pity the persecuted Jews seeking refuge in France, no need to be political. Anti-Semitism was the easiest and foulest reaction, and thus the one most often used.
Of course, the politicians and intellectuals set the example. We can always count on them. Xavier Vallat in the Chambre des Députés ironically hailed the day that "an ancient Gallo-Roman country" first acquired a Jewish leader. Town Counselor Darquier de Pellepois ran a viciously anti-Semitic journal, La France enchainée, and demanded, to even things with the Front Populaire, that a street be named after the rightist Edouard Drumont. Gringoire, which had exposed itself by driving Salengro to suicide, repeated the offense by compiling a list of Jewish ministers, cabinet aides, and departmental heads in Blum's government. The weekly Je suis partout, founded in 1930 by Arthème Fayard and originally run by Pierre Gaxotte, prepared a special issue in April 1938 on the Jews of the world. It would do a similar issue in 1939 on Jews in France, striving for precise guidelines for a legal definition of the Jews. In a word, Je suis partout laid the groundwork. Soon Hitler would only have to come in and complete the work already begun.
Anti-Semitism had experienced a lull during the Great War. Hatred of Germany leveled differences. There was a natural integration of the Jews into the national community. But very soon, the Soviet's rise to power awakened one form of anti-Semitism. France had to protect itself against "Jewish" Bolshevism, against Trotsky and his ilk, that threatened Europe. It was a short step from there to claiming as Caillaux did in his Mémoires that "the Jew, in whatever sphere of work, carries within him a taste for destruction and a hunger for domination," and that set the ball rolling again.
From the 1920s on, the press -- L'Action francaise, La Liberté, Le Petit Parisien -- set the tone. Albert Londres, in L'Excelsior, wrote ironically of the new masters of the Kremlin, the Jews, who were preparing the massacres that would drown the world in blood. The theme of England Judaized, an egoistic England wrapped up in its own interests, its colonial empire, favoring Germany over France, would also become a leitmotiv of the political discourse of the Right. Le Régime d'Israêl chez les Anglo-Saxons [Israel's Rule over the Anglo-Saxons], the title of a 1921 work by Roger Lambelin, a follower of Maurras and the French translator of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, needs no commentary. The Jewish bankers of the City, with Lloyd George wrapped around their finger, were behind an international plot that obviously included the United States. Seeing Hitler's threat take shape, they would soon be clamoring for war against Germany, naturally dragging in France, that ready-made supply of cannon fodder. Such were their theories and litanies. Blum would soon become their target as he wavered between his peaceable desire to oppose Hitler's maneuverings and the policy of rearmament, which he never fully carried through. The nationalization of industry and aircraft factories had thrown France's military potential into disarray. To sum up: by late 1937, anti-Semitism was taken for granted throughout France.
And on the intellectual side, Barrès, Valéry, Léon Daudet, Maurras and several others had already more than revealed themselves as Drumont's followers during the Dreyfus Affair. Jouhandeau and Gide had been firmly anti-Semitic, as had Claudel and Léautaud; Giraudoux would follow suit. Before the 1930s, Bernanos had declared himself essentially a Drumont disciple. More insidiously -- and Léon Poliakov pointed this out very clearly in his Histoire de l'antisémitisme -- there existed an image of the Jew in the French novel of the period, a vehicle for every commonplace of the more or less acknowledged and more or less conscious anti-Semitism of French ideology. It represented the Jew as either ugly, Levantine, or as a profaner of the Christian religion; either his nose was hooked, his ears flapping, or his lips thick; he might also possess the unnerving Oriental mildness of his race. In a word, he was striking for his otherness. One need only reread, among others, Jouhandeau, Mauriac, Martin du Gard, Pierre Benoit, Georges Duhamel, or Jacques de Lacretelle.
In his earlier books, Céline had not succumbed to such commonplaces. There was nothing in Voyage and nothing in Mort à crédit to feed this crude, trite, even unconscious racism. Not one Jewish character appears in these novels. Moreover, in Mort à crédit, the author makes fun of Ferdinand's father, that grotesque and vociferous anti-Semitic loser, a reader of Drumont, winded by his own pathetic grudges. The Jews in L'Église? They were not personalized, they were merely stick-figures, symbolic characters, abstractions, ideas -- one way for Céline to write about the Jews (in a style already polemical) as the secret masters of high-level politics, of the League of Nations, of the world; basically a disturbing little tirade and nothing worse.
And then came Bagatelles pour un massacre.
How does one become a racist, how does one come to commit such absolute crimes agaisnt the spirit as racial discrimination and defamation, and more specifically, anti-Semitism? Each individual, of course, lives with his or her own contradictions, his or her own zones of shadow and light. It would be singularly naive to claim to be able to explain every facet of a personality, to reveal every reason behind a person's behavior. History, sociology, psychology, and psychoanalysis are helpless before it. There exists within each of us a solid core of unyielding opacity. We can only orbit around it and try to shed light on merely fragmentary aspects of that mysterious (and dubious) unity known as man. In the case of Céline and his anti-Semitism, several answers allow only a part of the enigma to be dispelled.
1. Céline's anti-Semitism goes back to his earliest childhood. The world before Dreyfus, before the 1900 World's Fair, represented to him an imaginary and thus perfect paradise. His father insisted that the Jews were the cause of every evil and every decline. If the lace market was no longer viable, for example, it was the fault of the Jews. How could such ideas fail to leave marks on the consciousness of the teenager, the adult? From his childhood, anti-Semitism had been banalized, a thing coeval with his entry into life, into awareness, i.e., into the feeling of death. From there to associating the Jews with the very concept of decadence...
2. At the heart of all forms of anti-Semitism we must seek out the personal hatreds, bitterness, and humiliations that the individual then raises to the level of generalized assumptions, as if to justify his or her own failures, to find the pettiest, easiest, most across-the-board revenge. Why should Céline have been immune to this petty-bourgeois attitude? He had felt himself barred, rejected, at the League of Nations, where his mentor, Ludwig Rajchman, ran the Health Section. At the Clichy clinic, Grégoire Ichok had usurped what he considered to be his rightful place. Elizabeth Craig, whom he adored, had left him for an American whom he suspected of being of Jewish descent. The Soviets, all Jews in his eyes (though Stalin had already begun to liquidate his rivals), had rejected his ballets. The Left rallying around Léon Blum had blasted Mort à crédit. And there was no question of intolerable. it was a conspiracy. It was the grouop against the man alone, the Jews against Céline. Something had to be done!
3. The writer's anti-Semitism was connected to the pacifist trend of the times. Anything rather than war! As Léon Poliakov wrote in his dissertation of this widely shared idea, "was it conceivable that, threatened as he was by Hitler, the international Jew should not seek to encourage a general mobilization? Consequently, death to the Jew." Thus, the frantic Céline wounded in '14 and having retained an hallucinatory image of the war, was inclined toward any excess if it could prevent further massacres. The most striking pages of Bagatelles, and especially of L'École des cadavres develop that obsession:
"Above all, war must be avoided. War, for us as we are, means the end of the show, the final tilt into the Jewish charnel house.
"The same stubbornness in resisting war as the Jews display in dragging us into it. The Jews are motivated by a fearful, talmudic, unanimous tenacity, an infernal perseverance, and we oppose them only with a few groans.
"We will go to the Jewish war. We are only fit to die."
And Poliakov notes: "Here, the demented style expresses terrors that were no less real for being demented, and which one need not have been anti-Semitic to share."
In short, Céline could have dedicated Bagatelles to his friends with the same inscription penned by Bernanos to Jacques Vallery-Radot on his copy of Grands Cimetières sous la lune: "I'd like to throw this book into the starving faces of idiots to prevent them from devouring the world."
4. To be astonished by Céline's racist theories is to forget the public health specialist he had always been. The author of Voyage au bout de la nuit remained obsessed with the idea of decadence. A "bastardized" France, alcoholic Frenchmen with otiose digestions -- these were scourges he had long denounced. The distance is not that great between certain developments in his novels and the arguments in his political writings. Everywhere we find the same obsessions with race, the Chinese in France, the death of civilization, etc. Hitler's concepts of the chosen people, the Aryan people, pure blood, discipline, and public health found fertile ground in him, ready-tilled.
5. Analyzing communist ideology in Mea culpa, Céline had demonstrated the danger of any system that draws up plans for a rosy future, forcing men to be happy according to its personal vision of progress. The supreme imposture, he believed, is hope. For it is hope that seeks out hostages and condemns them, that inspires acts of revenge, that fills the gulags. Steeped in misery, Céline had up to then bound himself to the narrow attitude that consisted foremost in denouncing the impopsture of all rebellion, that is, of all hope. Man was cursed. Progress was a mirage. And it was this not easily tenable position that he abruptly renounced when war threatened, when an existential misery was faced with the imminence of historical, if not to say planetary catastrophe. In his pamphlets everything seems to indicate that Céline had succumbed to hope, had finally found an explanaton of the evils he had been denouncing. jews, communists, and Freemasons could now be shown up for what they were, the problem with everything. "Aryan idiocy" did the rest. The passengers aboard the Admiral-Gragueton in Voyage, all those indigent, sickly, worn-out, humiliated people doing their best to slander the narrator, to create someone even more miserable than themselves, simply for entertainment, comfort, and a momentary escape from their own nightmare -- Céline had shown them up in his first two novels. And now he had gone over to their side. He sought and found his scapegoats, as if he were unable to escape his fear, to bear his skeptical solitude any longer, as if he needed answers at any price.
6. One last point. We must always keep in mind the image of a Céline wounded, solitary, isolated by the humming in his ears, his headaches, his auditory hallucinations. When an attack came upon him, when he was in pain, he didn't want to see anyone, he brutally evicted his visitors, slammed the door, retreated to his office, lay down for a rest, and then wrote. Writing protected him, carried him to life's other dimension, that of dream, fairy tale or wrath -- it little mattered which, so long as he achieved the state in which he no longer felt responsible. "I'm still a few hatreds short, and I'm sure they exist," he had written in the afterword to Mea culpa. These hatreds, which he nurtured and developed with such intolerable energy, were, I repeat, fictitious hatreds to him, solitary and rhetorical hatreds, neither real nor personalized. To the extent that, with all the conviction of sincerity, he was able to tell Pierre Dumayet, for example, on the television show "Lecture pour tous" aired on July 17, 1959: "I don't see myself at all as violent. Not in the least. I have never been violent. I have always carede with great gentleness, if I may say so, for all those who have come to me. I have saved a great many people, animals..."
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. All he had done was write, develop a voluminous rhetoric -- trifles, nothing more. Céline the man was bitter, close, finicky, suspicious, bad-tempered, thrifty, resourceful, and anything else you could think of. But he did not harbor aggressive, racist vindictiveness toward any particular individual. He saved up and magnified his hatreds and ill-conceived banalities for the convulsive solitude of writing -- that other universe. He also took them lightly, wanting to get a laugh out of them. History had yet to catch up with him. Hitler's nightmares -- very real nightmares this time -- had not yet provided their disastrous mirror image of his own.
There remain in any case two arguments that must be explored in order to explain Céline's anti-Semitism -- arguments often advanced and, moreover, conflicting. There is first the idea that Céline was not anti-Semitic but that he had used this generic, abstract term to define all his fears and targets, such as alcoholism, war, and warmongers. That is false. From the very beginning, Céline possessed the basic anti-Semitism of the embittered and insecure lower-middle class whose characteristics he adopted. But he accelerates the tempo of that anti-Semitism, elevating it to the level of delirium and a universal condemnation of humanity's evils. There is the further idea that Céline, moved by suicidal rage, wrote his political books to set himself up as a victim, to cultivate the art of being in the wrong. In other words, to play the persecutor so as to be better able to claim the role of persecuted later on. The theory is seductive. Céline often falls into paranoid delusions, believing himself the target of endless conspiracies and ill-will. But now, in 1937 and 1938, his writings were aimed at the greatsst number of readers, humoring them, amusing them, provoking them. It was not until later, after the liberation, that he would discuss, with a sometimes morbid pleasure, all the misinterpretations and misunderstandings that had made him hated, as though he drew his strength only from the bitterness and hostility he aroused.
Which finally brings us back to the contents of Bagatelles pour un massacre. A hold-all book, certainly, as we have said, an open floodgate of excess and belly laughs, too, a book of racist slurs of the worst sort distorted and transformed into a world of delirium.
The cultured, academic, and literary worlds -- which had slammed the door in his face after Mort à crédit -- are the first to be hauled over the coals. And Jewish Russia, oppressed Russia, Soviet Russia, steeped in frightfrul misery. Jews clamoring for war against Hitler are a leitmotiv. "A Jew in every turret, right from the start of mobilization. As if by magic, you'd feel a breeze -- what am I saying? -- an irresistible, blasting gale, veritable cyclones of pacificst protestation! across every border! it would rain turtledoves!"
And the English? They would leave the French to be massacred. "Let us never forget that the Jews are kings of the City ... one of their supreme citadels, along with Wall Street and Moscow ... Not much will be destroyed ... you can be sure of that ... Patience! a lot of patience, a remarkable 'wait and see' ... The Jews, the Jewish House of Lords, the magnates of England, won't rush into anything ... They'll send a few planes ... a few generals for luncheon with Maurois...and to discuss the Channel tunnel a little at the Ministry."
Hitler? Céline does not much care for him, but throws off his own mask nonetheless: "I don't want to go to war for Hitler, I'll admit it, but I don't want to go against him, for the Jews ... You can bawl me out all you want, but it's the Jews and they alone who are dragging us to the firing line ... Hitler doesn't like the Jews, nor do I! There's no point getting all upset over so little ... It's no crime that they make you sick." And further on: "Taking it to the extreme, I'm not one for beating about the bush, I tell it as I think it, I'd prefer a dozen Hitlers to one all-powerful Blum. Hitler, at least, I could understand, while with Blum it's pointless, he'll always be the worst enemy, absolute hatred, to the death."
He also settles his grudge against the 1937 Fair that rejected his ballets, "a magnificent, crushing example of the Jewish colonizing fury, less and less worried about resentment and native reaction." Which naturally leads into Céline's denunciation of French decadence, the lack of culture, the alcoholism, and the educational system that are killing its ordinary citizens, turning them into robots, stifling their emotions, teaching them a dead, stilted, academic language. From one ideal to the next, the output of the publishing industry is catastrophic, literature is washed up, culture has become a meaningless word. "The poor little market for French literature, already so stunted, on the run, its back against the wall, has quickly found itself crushed under the novels and serializations of Mr. and Mrs. Lehmann Rosamonde, Virginia Woolf...Wicki Baum...Mr. Ludwig...Mr. Cohen...Mr. Davis...Miss 'Chat qui pêche'...all Jews and Jewesses...each one of them a more tendentious, more talentless, more plagiaristic, more fake, more of a 'genius,' more thieving, corrupting, cunning, depraved, contemptuous, sniveling, humoristic and sententious than the next." And the great French classics? "Racine? What a sweet-talking, weak-kneed exhibitionist! What an obscene, groping, swooning mongrel! Part Jewish, as it happens!" There's more: the Bourbons who ruled over France -- just look at their noses! And let's not even get started on the cinema.
Scatalogical, sneering, vulgar, incoherent, and comical, Céline strews his book with phony numbers, insane statistics culled from the anti-Semitic den of Darquier de Pellepoix, quotations from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that notorious invention of anti-Semitic propaganda, which he uses without batting an eyelid. He also slips in his ballets between chapters -- chapters of one or sometimes two pages, like quick belches, sneezes, bouts of nausea, of hatred, of revenge. The Jews, whose intelligence and solidarity he cannot help but admire, are constantly used as the most convenient shibboleth (along with communists and Freemasons) on which to focus his rejections and to base his anger. Logic and fact are thrown out the window.
Published in late 1937, Bagatelles was a great succcess with the public, as we have said. The first run of over 20,000 copies was soon sold out. Denoël ran a second edition of the work. By the end of the war, total sales would be around 75,000.
No surprise, the critical reception was neither fierce nor hot-headed, and once again provoked no radical differences between Left and Right, due to the fact that no one knew whether or not to take Céline seriously. Of course, for militant anti-Semites, the author of Vogage had suddenly become a choice, unhoped-for recruit, and they weren't about to split hairs. "The surprise was extraordinary," Lucien "Rebatet would later explain. "I got into a race with Brasillach over who would be the first in with his article, him in L'Action française or me in Je suis partout. I think it was Robert who won, by a nose."
But it was precisely in his Action française article on Janurary 13, 1938, that Brasillach hinted at his reservations concenring Céline's rationality. Brasillach would have preferred a more coherent, well-argued, persuasive anti-Semitism. he was concerned lest that "vast, monotone obsession," Semites themselves, such moderate rational folk as they were. But he soon redeemed himself. "What can you do? If you want to be in a lion's company, you don't feed him spinach. And my word, while I was reading his book, I enjoyed every minute of M. Céline's company." Even so, there was no better way of saying that, in normal circumstances, Céline was not his social equal. And Brasillach concluded his article on this sympathetic note: "Think what you will of the Jews and M. Céline. We do not agree with him on every point, far from it. But we said it first: this vast book, this magnificent book, is the opening shot of the 'native rebellion.' You may find this rebellion excessive, more instinctive than rational, even dangerous: but after all, we are the natives."
The most memorable article is undeniably that of André Gide in the N.R.F. of April 1938. Gide had been harshly taken to task by Céline but did not seem to hold it against him. He set the tone from his opening line. "It seems to me that there has been an awful lot of nonsense written about Bagatelles pour un massacre by its critics. What surprises me is that they could all have been so mistaken. For, after all, Céline was playing for high stakes, even the very highest, as he always does. He has always come straight to the point. He has done his best to warn that all of this is no more serious than Don Quixote's tilting at windmills." The entire book, he basically went on to say, was one big joke. Céline was never better than when he abandoned all moderation. He possessed a gratuitous excess of lyrical ire. "It is not reality that Céline paints; it is the hallucination brought on by reality, and that is where he is interesting." It could not have been better put. And Gide concludes: "Certain other readers might not be comfortable with a literary game that, with the help of stupidity runs the risk of tragic consequences. If one were forced to see in Bagatelles pour un massacre anything other than a game, then Céline, despite all his genius, would have no excuse for stirring up our commonplace passions with such cynicism and casual levity."
Among the other critical reactions to Bagatelles we should note Georges Zérapha's quite appropriately harsh analysis in La Conscience des juifs in February-March 1938. He perceptively noticed that "all [Céline's] statements on the so-called Jewish domination are contradicted in his latest work by the simple presentation of a real Jew, Gutmann, who is his friend, has none of the defects attributed to Jews, and in whom we detect no particular capacity for corruption or domination." He adds, "Here we touch on proof of the metaphysical nature of anti-Semitism in general, and Céline's in particular. The corrupter, the dominator, is not the concrete Jew, who, based on personal affinities, is always given a special dispensation by anti-Semites; it is the symbolic Jew, the Jew as abstraction, who is cursed; it is, as we shall see, the devil."
After pointing to Céline's cowardice, his fear of love, his incapacity for life, his doctrinal impulses akin to Hitler's theories, Zérapha specifies: "What, finally, does a call to massacre mean to Céline? Céline has not for one moment considered that an Aryan reader would take him seriously and respond to his call by murdering one or several Jews." There always lingered the suspicion of a huge joke, which Zérapha denounces all the more vehemently for its reliance on a pseudoscientific documentation. "A writer worthy of the name can write an anti-Semitic book, grotesque though it may be, but he disgraces himself by reproducing propaganda leaflets and passing them off as the fruit of his own research."
René Vincent, in Combat in March 1938, found Céline's tone so artificial, so surreal, so embued with Freudian concepts, that he detected a Jewish influence upon it. Someone had to think of it. "Furthermore, since Louis XIV is Jewish, since Racine is Jewish, since the Pope is Jewish, why shouldn't M. Céline himself be a Jew?" In support of his thesis, he quotes a line from Bagatelles: "Thanks to my incantatory manner, my smutty, vociferous, anathematic lyricism -- in a very personal manner that has certain Judaic aspects to it -- I excel over the Jews, I can teach them a thing or two."
In La Revue Hebdomadaire of July 1938, Gonzague Truc pointed out Céline's enthusiasm for filth, turpitude, and his relentless wallowing in the dregs of human ignominy. Not in order to attack him but on the contrary, to defend, to emphasize the necessity of Céline's protest in the face of the terrifying imbecility into which the world, civilization, was stumbling. He concluded: "We must therefore admire his courage. We must better learn how to find the wisdom and beauty hidden within such demented books, and in that same, almost sacred delirium, the divinatory panoramas unseen by good sense; we must sense through these moldering garbage heaps the healthful breezes of the seas."
We are shocked today by the moderation of such reviews, a moderation barely disturbed by H.E. Kaminsky's widely ignored pamphlet, Céline en chemise brune, published by Nouvelles Éditions Excelsio in late February 1938, a pamphlet that was less aggressive than its title would lead one to believe. But to be shocked would, again, be to forget how banal xenophobia and racist sentiment were at the time. One could write against the Jews with impunity. One could joke, bluster, rant, play dirty. One could lie, invent, discredit oneself. It was of little consequence -- or so it was believed.
The School for Anti-Semitism
What expectations could Céline have after Bagatelles? "I'm not too sure what the future (if there is one!) will bring. We'll see. I have no more expectations. For that matter, I have never had any expectations. I shouldn't like to suffer so much that I'd have to flee. That's my only wish. It's a modest one. But I know from experience that I don't have much luck."
Even so, not leaving it to chance, in early 1938 he deposited some gold coins -- 184 ten-florin coins to be precise -- in the Nederlandsche Bank of Amsterdam. He took advantage of his travels to see Évelyne Pollet in Antwerp. As soon as he had left, she offered the Belgian weekly Cassandre (where, in May '37, she had already published an encomium on "Céline and the Scheldt") a paper in defense of Bagatelles pour un massacre. The editors rejected it. Céline learned of her effort and showed extreme irritation over it. Be it from generosity or pride, as an individualist he rejected as a general rule any offer of assistance. He hated to be beholden. As things stood, he did not wish to compromise her or her family in the event that this political affair "should finish tragically." he wrote her violent letters: "I loathe, truly loathe, friendships that end up being helpful. I do not want anyone to help me, assist me, defend me. Once and for all. Neither you nor anyone else. I know what I'm doing. I know the risks. That's how I like it and that's all that matters."
Céline had written his book feverishly. History was moving no less so and was about to catch up with him. The government of the Front Populaire -- under which Céline was proud to have written Bagatelles, not waiting for the Jews to be persecuted to abuse them, as he later said -- had had its day. Hitler pursued his expansionist policies. On March 12 his troops occupied Austria. It was the Anschluss, a flouting of international law. The unfortunate Chancellor Schussnigg was forced to resign. A European country had been annexed just like that, on a roll of the dice, an easy bluff, and a roll of the drums. The Austriann Nazis, led by Seyss-Inquart, had worked things out pretty neatly. Courageous but not foolhardly, England for its part let it happen, would not intervene in Austrian affairs, and made that very clear to France, which asked for nothing better. chautemps' new government came out of it looking pathetic. Blum then tried to form a new "National Unity" government. In vain. The French couldn't see the need for it. Communists and rightists refused to cohabitate. Susceptibilities were easily wounded. War was still someone else's problem. After six weeks of Blum's interim leadership, the Daladier government took power.
Céline took to the road. It was an old habit. When things were going bad, when he wanted to escape harsh realities and the pressures that followed the publication of a book, he ran away, to forget and be forgotten. The launching of the American edition of Mort à crédit was the perfect excuse to cross the ocean. He decided to begin his tour with Canada, and said adieu to France, to Europe, to the Anschluss, and to the coming war.
In Bordeaux, he boarded the freighter Le Celte, which was on its way from Zeebrugge and weighed anchor for Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon on April 15, after having first taken on 240 tons of cargo and four passengers, amongst whom were Céline, a young woman, and her ten-year-old daughter, Jeanne Allain. "I'll always remember Louis-Ferdinand Céline, that big nice man, who was equally liked by the crew of Le Celte, with whom he talked about Saint-Pierre. He gave me a little note and his autograph. I've lost it all, unfortunately. At that age, I didn't really understand why he told me to remember him when I got older."
On April 26 the ship docked in Saint-Pierre, that island of heavy winds, ocean, fog, and oblivion at the end of the world. A romantic landscape, a savage and desolate Célinian landscape, Saint-Pierre certainly enabled him to indulge his nautical fantasies. In Sigmaringen, he would write in D'un château l'autre, and he would ask Laval to appoint him governor of the Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon islands. A fairy tale? Perhaps. And Laval had answered him:
"'Whatever put that into your head, Doctor?'
"'It just came to me, Mr. President! The attractions of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon!...'
"I start to tell him...I'm not speaking on hearsay...I was there...in those days it took 25 days from Bordeaux to Saint-Pierre...on the very fragile Celtique...they still fished on Saint-Pierre...I know Langlade and Miquelon well...I know the road well...the only road, from one end of the island to the other...the wheel and the marker of the 'Souvenir,' the road dug through solid rock by the sailors of the Iphigénie...I'm not making any of it up...these are real memories, a real road!...and not only the sailors of the Iphigénie...convicts too...there was a prison camp on Saint-Pierre...it left i ts own marker!...
"'That's what you'd see, Mr. President! In the middle of the Atlantic!'
"The main thing is, I was named Governor...I still am!..."
What was he doing on Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon in 1938, and afterward in Canada? He was not a tourist, nor was he on the lecture circuit or promoting his books. He was pursuing his obsession, continuing to explore future and potential places of exile, after London and Jersey. This later caused Henri Mahé, an invaluable witness to Céline's ramblings, to say: "That year, a kind of foul whiff of Apocalypse hovered over Europe.... It was high time to unearth some island that no one wanted or would fight over, where lovely peace was assured and you could get yourself some. Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon would stand a chance."
This intention was confirmed by the testimony of René Héron de Villefosse, who had met Céline in 1936 aboard Mahé's little boat, the Enez Glaz, then docked in Paris, on the quai Conti, across from the Institute, and who recalls his prophecies:
"'Only one country in the world will be left in a century, the one where parish priests are kings, and that's Canada, the most damned boring country there is...but I'll go, say the Mass. I'll teach the catechism. There won't be much choice if you want to save your ____________ and I'm rather fond of mine."
"In verbal gales, a bit like in Mea culpa, he described the coming upheavals, Europe in flames, the last chance one had to get safe by leaving pronto, without delay, without a second thought, with a a bundle of clothing."
And then came Montreal.
As soon as he learned of Céline's arrival in town, a Canadian academic, Victor Barbeau, then president of his country's writers' association, wanted to meet him. He finally found him at a meeting of the extreme Right, where Céline was attending as a simple anonymous spectator. He introduced himself and greeted him as "cher maître." Céline burst out laughing. They became friends. Barbeau would have liked to persuade Céline to give lectures. Nothing doing, neither in a tuxedo nor in a lounge suit nor for any fee proposed. Play the clown to entertain society folk? Not a chance.
"A supper for writers? Yes, on the condition that there be no more than ten of them and that it all be set up without ceremony, like a party for cabbies and truck drivers.
"There were more than twenty of us. Despite the good food and fine wines, Céline never unclenched his teeth. Showered with questions, bewildered by the chatter of a woman of letters who knew all the Paris phonies, he hardly touched his meal. I was expecting the worst, but the ogre didn't devour a soul."
Later in the evening, Barbeau brought Céline to a friend's house. And suddenly the writer revived. He had been taciturn. He became irrepressible. The intimate atmosphere aroused his spirits. He soliloquized on the Apocalypse. No dialogue, just the long retailing of anecdeotes, predictions, fits of anger, Céline in his entirety: the man who spoke too much, the man who remained despairingly mute, the man who could never hold a real conversation. Who could flatter oneself by claiming ever to have had a proper discussion with Céline?
In its Anglo-American translation by John Marks, Mort à crédit was published in America by the Boston firm of Little Brown, which also published Voyage. Céline's presence in the United States does not appear to have contributed significantly to the book's launching. The writer was drawn to New York for other reasons, the usual ones: the music hall, the chorus girls, his friends, the comforting oblivion one always feels in plunging into a large, foreign city.
He headed for home on the Normandie on May 18.
On the 23rd, Lucette met him in Le Havre, where they remained for about a week. Louis soon fell back into his Montmartre habits. Now he need no longer be distracted by his medical and pharmaceutical work; he could shut himself away, write, remember things past and weave them into nightmares present. Technically, Casse-Pipe was still the work in progress, the chronological sequel to Mort à crédit, young Ferdinand's conscription into the army before 1914. And from one war to the next. But it was precisely that next war to come that he wished to forget momentarily by wandering through his past, writing, seeking his music and doing a little daydreaming.
He put it very prettily to Évelyne Pollet in a letter on May 31: "I am just a workman in a certain kind of music and that's all and everything else is immaterial, incomprehensible, desperately boring to me. This world seems extraordinarily wearying to me with its characters dependent upon, stubbornly wallowing in, and bound to their desires, their passions, their vices, their virtues, their explanations."
Lucette left him occasionally for brief engagements or tours of France and abroad. That summer she was dancing in Poland and Lithuania. Louis let her go but was soon anxious and impatient with her absence. His letters became ever more urgent. "Come home! Come home! Had Lucette's manager made her sign a one-month contract? "Screw your manager! Come home!" was his answer.
He left for Saint-Malo in mid-July, again staying with Marie Le Bannier. When he came to write Féerie pour une autre fois, in the torment of exile and prison in Denmark, he would recall these summers in Saint-Malo, of which we get a fleeting glimpse in a photograph taken on the beach, at the foot of the ramparts, with a smiling Céline in his bathing suit, his friends Henri Mahé and the doctor/colonel Camus at his side, while Lucette squats in the foreground performing her stretching exercises, and a very young Sergine Le Bannier plays and crawls in the sand. And in Féerie, the images the sounds, the music of those summers in Brittany will return to charm him.
"Three rooms under the rafters, a sublet from my old pal Mlle. Marie... You can imagine, I heard a thing or two! bangings and passions! and sea gulls crying in the storm...
"Fantastic romantic summers! What equinoxes!"
After having been Marie Le Bannier's de facto guest, he would rent a little apartment from her on the second floor of the Franklin Building. Only one summer, during the war, would he take an apartment on the Saint-Malo ramparts, lent to him by his old friend, the museum curator André Dezarrois, who was proud of belonging to the school of Breton bards.
"I'm in my memories, please forgive me...All in all, those were happy times...
"Tonight, speaking to you from my pit, I can hear, I hear again...say!...the sobs of vioooolins! miaowing to me! and the foghorns' 'pwah pwah' from the docks! ... the 'huff-huff,' their asthma! ... the Cancale race! ... the hurrahs! the crowds...now that's your authentic cinema of the time!"
Saint-Malo and the sea -- poignant...
"I don't know if you can see it?...it's a charming bay...
"The old Terranueva rotting there at the dock, its yardarms falling on the bridge, snapping, worn out...its holds empty, bowsprit crushed...you couldn't tell, it's full of people....
"I love the whole bay and the clock tower and the ruins and the vanished belfry and the Corsairs' Palace."
During the summer of '38, he probably strolled idly along the ramparts or the strand, mused before Châteaubriand's tomb, rambled as far as Cancale, spent hour after hour with his friends -- Henri Mahé, a sailor as makeshift as he was stubborn; the Breton poet Théophile Briant, who edited an astonishing little sheet, Le Goéland; the Le Coz sisters, authentic locals who ran the Breiz Izel restaurant where he enjoyed eating. He would recall all these characters in the melancholy pages of the aptly named Féerie pour une autre fois. He may also have argued with such hotheaded and ferocious separatists as Olier Mordrel who, in the heat of the Munich crisis, had no qualms about posting a bill: "Not one drop of Breton blood for the Czechs!" Céline enjoyed their occasional company, he felt a certain indulgence for and empathy with them, for his curiosity was always aroused by impassioned, excessive dreamers. But he spent most of that summer locked away in his little office in the Franklin Building, writing the more-feverish-than-ever pages of his second great political book, L'École des cadavres.
Daladier had by then taken power, stabilized the franc, and abolished the forty-hour week by decree. He wanted to revive the economy, and committed France to a policy of rearmament. They weren't striking in the German or Italian factories, he told the strikers and communists who claimed to be anti-fascist, with some justification. Hitler was pursuing his adventurous schemes and his Greater Reich policy. After Austria, Czechoslovakia soon became the next target, with its three million Sudeten Germans led by a party that took its orders from Hitler. In short, war remained on the daily agenda.
After Bagatelles, there was nothing left for Céline to say or argue. But he could repeat himself with greater force, greater provocativeness, greater delirious intensity, without being sidetracked this time by considerations connected to his trip to Russia, his ballets, or literature. He still felt the need to howl out his abiding thirst for peace, his hatred of Jews, and thus his desire for an alliance with Hitler at any price.
Each time Céline sat down to write, he fell into an altered state, a state of trance, a strange arousal that might be called erotic. He fantasized: about dance, dancers, anything! It was a curious "erection" that writing alone could soothe, could cap. Or else he had to reach a sufficient degree of rage, like a drug, to unleash his incantatory writing, to achieve, as Gide rightly put it, a state of hallucination.
This phenomenon appears clearly from the very opening of L École des cadavres. The narrator meets an old mermaid, her body covered in scales, an erotic, sarcastic muse dripping with oil and tar, basking in the Seine somewhere between La Jatte and Courbevoie. They soon begin to argue, to insult one another. Céline defends himself, attacks, vituperates. And his story grows precisely out of this quarrel. Without this summons, this contrivance, he could not have expressed himself. Further, in the following pages, he invents -- most probably -- a contradictor, a correspondent who sends him a poison-pen letter signed "Salvador, Jew." Which allows Céline to retort, to fuss over his anger, to achieve the ecstasy of hatred.
His book then descends into a vortex of madness. Words pile upon words, sucked into a revelry, an alliterative delirium, an abusive music, shimmering insults, a euphonic ebb and flow of his fears.
Novelists and reporters who boast of having abolished war are incompetents: "They've never fucked, bucked, hustled, muscled a damn thing! those be-peacocked parakeets, not the least butt or babe, the least complicament, never unfinagled, discombobbled the weakest mitigated litigation! Not a thing! Never! short-sighted sleazes! Pencil-necked shitslingers!
"The fuming, destructing Furies of War scoff at your woggish emotings to the ends of hell! your silent, anathematic farting.
"You cowardly, shit-scared gropers! I'm enfulminating I admit! I'm moiling! I'm boiling! I'm humbugging my wig! I'm fuguing! I'm shrieking! I'm breathless! I'm belching roiling vapors! I don't give a fitting fuck anymore!"
What a confession! What a wonderful concentration of Céline's stylistic genius and rambling! In this extract we see perfectly how the writer frees himself with his valise words, his speed, his hallucinations, his rhymes -- as if the music within him moved continually faster than meaning, emotion preceded reason, with his acknowledged anger, his immense fear, his racial hatred of the "Kikish carrion corps" and other nauseating niceties.
What would be the point of accusing Céline of racism? It would not be an insult. It's patently obvious. He says it, admits it, shouts it: "Racism! Of course! And how! The more of it the merrier! Racism! Enough of our soft religions! We've been stuffed enough as it is by all the apostles, all the Evangelists. All Jewish, by the way, from Peter the founder to the present Pope via Marx!"
And always, to underlie the book, to give it its only possible illumination, there remains that overweening fear of war and massacre.
"The Aryan States: wilderness parks for Jewish bloodfests. Ritual battles for knackers, lowings, wholesale meat of every kind, various social phenomena, a milking of the cows between the intermissions."
The solution? There is only one, which Céline repeats until he's hoarse: "Franco-German union. Franco-German alliance. Franco-German army."
"It's the army that makes alliances, solid ones. Without a Franco-German army, treaties will remain platonic, academic, fickle, erratic,... Enough slaughterhouses! A Franco-German army first! The rest will follow of itself. Italy, Spain into the bargain, will quite naturally join the Confederation.
"Confederation of the Aryan States of Europe.
"Executive power: the Franco-German army.
"A Franco-German alliance, for life, to the death."
And at the same time that he was writing these final pages of L École des cadavres, he was also dabbling with the same peace of mind -- or rather the same tortured and delusional anxiety -- in writing the outline, the ballet, the fairy tale that he called Scandale aux abysses and which he would publish for the first time in 1950, thanks to Pierre Monnier, under the aegis of Chambriad Éditeur. In it, Neptune, Venus, the island of Terranova, long-haul sailors with short-lived destinies combine their charms, their melancholy loves, and their whispered poetry.
Elusive Céline! During the summer he had stopped over in London with Mahé to withdraw some gold he had deposited at Lloyds Bank, before renting a safe deposit box at the Privat Banken of Copenhagen. Céline's early assaults on the world had brought him large amounts of hard cash, and he was keeping his feet firmly on the ground. That much is true, but a novel, a book other than Bagatelles, could have brought him just as much. And it is obvious that he had not written this one to indulge his readership's baser instincts and to get rich. He explored the furthest boundaries of his delirium with total conviction, one might say integrity. It was simply that Céline, haughty, sly, and suspicious, more from the gold-coins-under-the-mattress school than from that of paper money, was also willfully sensitive and proud. He wanted to be in no one's debt, ever! The idea of one day being dependent or at the mercy of others made him tremble. Dignified, silent, like his mother and grandmother, he had not forgotten the lessons of a poverty dissembled and borne without complaint. If he was earning far less money since the loss of his medical jobs, that was all the more reason to save. In that way he hoped to ensure himmself a shelter far from Paris, far from France and the battlefields, a nest egg, a hidden treasure that would perhaps allow him to exist, to survive the Apocalypse without having to beg. And the future would prove him right -- to a point.
In September the political crisis took its most dramatic turn to date. War seemed imminent. In Nuremberg on September 12, Hitler called for the outright annexation of the contested Sudetenland. Daladier pressured the Czech government to yield. The English leader Chamberlain, anxious to stall for time -- England had to be rearmed, equipped with an air force, without which it would be crushed in the event of hostilities -- hesitated to react. Hitler immediately formulated new and unacceptable demands that the Czechs evacuate those territories without repatriating their property. Czechoslovakia began mobilizing on the spot, France and England called up several reserve divisions, and Hitler massed his troops. At the last minute Mussolini's initiative brought together the "big four" of Western Europe -- France, England, Italy, and Germany -- at the Munich Conference on September 29-30. Chamberlain and Daladier yielded to the main points and signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler (who agreed to a gradual occupation of the Sudetenland from October 1 to 10).
It was, as Blum said, speaking for the Left, "a cowardly appeasement." Peace had been saved in extremis. Daladier was welcomed in Le Bourget with hurrahs and sprays of roses. Peace, yes, but for how long? Daladier was not too proud of himself. They still had to prepare for war. The English, who for so many years had diplomatically played Germany against France, were finally beginning to understand that. The French too, but a little late. Lucette and Louis had rushed back to Paris on September 20 to figure out how best to save their furniture in case of hostilities. There were no hostilities. There were no hostilities. Not this time. A drawn hand. Céline finished the last pages of L 'École des cadavres and submitted it to Denoël. An urgent book, it had to be published urgently. "And while the first critical reviews appeared of the Italian translation, Bagatelle per un massacro, published in Milan in April, and the advance proofs came out for the future German edition of the same book, to be entitled Die Judenverschwörung in Frankreich [The Jewish Conspiracy in France] (Dresden, 1939), Denoël got to work on the second book, which ran to 25,000 copies and went on sale on November 24, at 30 francs.
It was less successful than the earlier one. It came at the worst possible moment. Who could possibly follow and support Céline in his madman's lucubrations? Bagatelles had won over the fascistic extreme Right which until then had ignored him, like Brasillach. L'École des cadavres would isolate him once more. Did this unduly upset him?
Lucien Rebatet has explained it very well:
"I must say too, to be truthful, that if we fascists had done the war dance around Bagatelles in 1938, L'École des cadavres, a year later, broke our backs. Hitler had just entered Prague. And that was the moment that Céline chose to call for a total, military, political, and economic alliance with Germany. Even for us, it was impossible to print a single word on such commerce. It was decided rather hypocritically that, in any case, he was repeating himself, spinning it out, and I agreed, despite the cries of joy which that whirlwind had often elicited from me.
"Céline, as always, had gone too far."
L'École des cadavres, like Bagatelles, would be pulled from the shelves in 1939. Its commercial exploitation was thus of short duration. But even taking the 1942 reprint into account, its sales would remain far lower than that of the earlier work.
"God is under repair" was Céline's epigraph to the book, a marvelous, mocking aphorism that chills one to the bone. Like the entire book, for that matter, with its stupefying, grotesquely poetic developments and its descents into hatred or unequivocal dementia. If a little perspective might help someone to speak about it, who, in that case, could boast of such objectivity in those final months before the war? A Henri Guillemin, perhaps? In the Cairo newspaper La Bourse égyptienne, he wrote with surprising serenity on February 19, 1939: "We have to know what it is we want from Céline. Ideas, a doctrine? If so, then we are obviously misguided. But a certain literary pleasure that only he can bring us? That, yes, and that alone; and that, to my mind, is no mean feat."
And he concluded his article thus:
"Once again, one needs to don armor -- or better yet, steel plating -- to approach Céline. He must be taken as he is or not at all. If I had opened his book intending to argue with him, I would have seen red myself. I would have had a stroke. To trample down the Jews, when they're enduring what they're enduring on the sacrificial pyre at this very moment, is a disgrace. But Ferdinand is well aware of that; and, as regards abominations, he has always enjoyed 'laying it on thick' on his adopted characters. A law of the genre.
"As long as one understands that this is a juggling act, one can go, free of reservations, and applaud this extraordinary juggler."
War Forever Renewed
The countdown had begun. Céline had howled out what he had to say with the madness, violence, and fear that moved him in the wounded solitude of his deliria. From now on he had only to keep his silence and catch his breath. He had only to keep his distance. He would stop militating. He would stop publishing. In any case, he would never join any kind of party. His philosophy could be summed up in the maxim of the pre-Socratic philosopher Bias of Priene: "Most men are wicked." If one accepts this, there is nothing left to be said, and everything can fall by the wayside: confidence in progress, Christianity, Marxism, hope, political involvement, democracy, and so on. After the howling, silence. The countdown to war had begun. He could only watch it, alone and despairing.
A witness reports Céline attendance at a public meeting organized by Darquier de Pellepoix on December 2, 1938, at 8, rue Laugier, in a gymnasium not far from the offices of the Anti-Jewish Assemblies of France. "He sat, anonymous, among the crowd. His shyness or modesty shied from public acclaim. As he had asked us to do, we respected his anonymity."
After the meeting, Céline accompanied some of its organizers to a neighboring café. To the exalted dynamism of Darquier de Pellepoix, future General Commissioner for Jewish Affairs in the Vichy government, the writer responded with hopeless disillusionment. The patrie was done for, he kept repeating in his monologue. No, he had nothing left to say, nothing left to hope for, like some connoisseur of decay. Too bad if Darquier was scandalized by such defeatism.
In early 1939 Céline learned of the death of Cillie's husband in Dachau. On February 21 he wrote her this astonishing letter.
What awful news! At least you're far away, on the other side of the world. Were you able to take a little money with you? Obviously, you're going to start a new life over there. How will you work? Where will Europe be by the time you receive this letter? We're living over a volcano.
On my side, my little dramas are nothing compared to yours (for the moment), but tragedy looms nonetheless...
"Because of my anti-Semitic stance I've lost all my jobs (Clichy, etc.) and I'm going to court on March 8. You see, Jews can persecute too.
It will be said that Céline was irresponsible and paranoid. But he wasn't joking, he wasn't displaying a macabre sense of humor -- he was dead serious. He believed that the Jews were persecuting him. He felt like a hunted man. And it was in part for that reason, because he was convinced that a still more-or-less latent hostility would one day rise up against him in the early days of war, that he left the rue Lepic and that he and Lucette moved in with his mother, in the little, comfortless apartment without toilet at 11, rue Marsollier, a stone's throw from the Passage Choiseul, on June 10, 1939.
After his letter of February 11, Cillie never saw him again and stopped writing, not surprisingly. The trial of March 8, to which Céline refers in his last letter to account for the "persecution" he too was suffering, followed a complaint lodged against him by Dr. Rouquès after the publication of L'École des cadavres. Already, in early January, the leftist journalist Léon Treich had felt attacked by Céline, who had wrongly called him a Jew; he had responded through the bailiff, and Céline wrote the required retraction, which vacated the legal proceedings. No such luck with Rouquès, who felt he had been libeled by the same token. On page 302 of L'École des cadavres, Céline, citing an article published in 'Humanité on November 5, 1938, that described the opening of a clinic owned by the Paris local of the metalworkers' union in the presence of Drs. Kalmanovitch, Oppman, Rouquès, Lecain, Bli, etc., had slipped i the parenthetical remark "all Jews," which was not true in Rocquès case. Céline's lawyer, André Saudemont -- who would be brought before the courts after the liberation, declared guilty of offenses against the nation and struck from the Paris bar for his radio transmissions during the occupation --- noted that to call an Aryan a Jew was a mistake, not an insult, unless the victim were himself a racist. The argument was a rather clumsy one, since Céline invariably associated Jews with Evil, with a thousand offensive and insulting epithets, at which point the characterization became indubitably libelous. The 12th Chamber of the Court of Summary Jurisdiction handed down its verdict on June 21. Céline and Denoìl were each fined 200 francs. Rouquès had asked for 50,000 in damages an interest. The court awarded him 2,000 and ordered the deltion of the offending passage, under penalty of 200 francs for every day of delay.
Céline had finally taken on his role as persecuted. In the prewar days, so steeped in tragedy, he had begun to live tragically; he saw the world foundering in horror, he saw himself, and he saw nothing between the two. In short, the line had been blurred between the general situation and his personal predicament. Céline was living, sleep-walking, at the center of a nightmare.
On April 21, 1939, Garde des Sceaux [Attorney General] Marchandeau issued the so-called "Resident's Law," which applied to the press and was aimed at protecting racial minorities. It was a question of reining in the anti-Semitic frenzy then current in the papers of the extreme Right. On May 10 Céline and Robert Denoìl decided to pull Bagatelles and L'École des cadavres from the shelves, though the Marchandeau decree did not target them directly.
Their retreat was not to the liking of Je suis partout. Under the precautionary pseudonym Midas, on May 26 the paper published a paragraph summed up in one sentence: "Céline -- you're chickening out!" Céline attributed this to Robert Brasillach and answered him fiercely on June 2. This time it was Brasillach who chickened out and did not publish the letter, in which the author of Voyage denounced his "cowardly little trick." Of a new letter from Céline written later in the month, Je suis partout published only four telegraphic lines. Céline had written: "You're splitting hairs, Brasillach, if I wanted to call you a pansy or a bastard, I wouldn't need an excuse. I'd say it like a man, to your face....I told you that we've already been to court twice. Do we have to go thirty-six times to make you happy, little girl?"
But all of this was a sideshow. History was on the move. And the last happy months, days, hours, were slipping by, running out, vanishing with every warning shot heard in the news. Peace hung by a thread. And it was losing its grip.
The Jews were leaving Germany in haste, having lost every right but that to be persecuted, deported, with worse to come. On January 26, 1939, Barcelona fell to the nationalists. Madrid fell a few days later, and London and Paris scurried to recognize General Franco's government. France's first ambassador to Spain was Pétain -- there could be some understanding between military men. They understood each other. On March 15 the Nazis were in Prague. This time Czechoslovakia found itself well and truly dismembered. England and France pretended not to have seen a thing. On April 7 Italy in turn invaded Albania, and hastened to reassure Greece that it had no designs on its territory, at least for the moment. On May 22, Mussolini and Hitler signed a pact of mutual assistance in Berlin; they were beginning to get along very nicely.
As for Daladier's France, it was getting along on its own. On April 27 Paris acclaimed the premiere of Ondine at the Théâtre de l'Athénée. Giraudoux's shimmering phantasmagoria was enough to keep it happy. Well might Renoir, in his masterpiece La Règle du jeu that same year, denounce a frivolous and worn-out middle class, isolated within its privileges, selfish, stupid, and satiated, unconcerned by and unaware of the Apocalypse -- Renoir was a voice in the desert, no one cared to hear him. "Must we die for Danzig?" mused Marcel Déat in a famous article for L'Oeuvre on May 4. The French had no desire to die for the Poles or for anyone. The French were afraid. They amused themselves, or they waited, passively.
As in earlier years, Lucette and Louis left for Saint-Malo in July. Évelyne Pollet, who had undergone surgery in December of '38, had been recuperating for several months in the south of France. Céline suggested that she come to see him in Brittany, and reserved her a hotel room in Dinard. The offer was as generous as it was rash. Possessive and passionate, Évelyne could only be jealous of Lucette's presence at his side. Already the previous year, Céline had had Lucette accompany him on a brief visit to Antwerp, and they had gone to see her together. Évelyne suddenly refused to leaver her room. And while Lucette and Évelyne's husband stayed in the living room exchanging small talk, Louis had gone up alone to see Évelyne, who had wanted to express to him the strength of her nonplatonic feelings. But now, in early July in Saint-Malo, she was forced to face facts: Lucette shared the writer's room. A scene ensued, shouting, despair. That very night, Évelyne Pollet tried to poison herself with an overdose of digitalin, a cardiopathic medicine. A real or a staged suicide attempt? Louis would not stand for the theatrics of this grotesque situation. He calmed her down and put her on a train for Paris the next morning.
The summer in Saint-Malo was getting off to a bad start. Céline had no heart for continuing work on Casse-Pipe. On July 5 Le Canard enchainé wrote of the expulsion of German ambassador Otto Abetz and the espionage incidents that had justified the measure. There was no mention of Céline in the article, but he felt himself targeted nonetheless and wrote a letter to the weekly on July 12. Lucien Sampaix, on the other hand, virtually accused Céline, in L'Humanité on July 10 and 11, of collusion with Darquier de Pellepoix's anti-Jewish leagues. Céline wrote a response that the paper declined to publish. A few days later, inspired by an antipornography and pro-higher birthrate bill tabled by a certain Senator Pernot and a company president named Boverat, the weekly Le Merle (formerly Le Merle blanc) published a derisive article that characterized Céline in passing as a "monster of genius." The writer wrote to the weekly on July 14, once again offering a diagnosis of his country's decadence: "In truth, ...
France can barely get it up, we're as stingy and cautious with sperm as with everything else, but we're frighteningly heavy drinkers. Will Péguchet attack the bistros, our innumerable kings? Not so brave, the sneak! Down with the writer! What risk is there in that? None!"
On July 21 and 22, Je suis partout published part of Céline's letter to L'Humanité, a response that also appeared in Le Droit de vivre, the journal of LICA (the International League against Anti-Semitism), then headed by Bernard Lecache.
In this way did Céline pass his days, by Lucette's side, reading, writing letters, waiting, loafing, fearing the worst in that city of pirates, through what he knew would be the last summer of peace.
The French government would have been happy to negotiate with Stalin and establish a military alliance with him against Hitler. French and British experts had even gone to Moscow in August to discuss its guidelines. But then, on August 23, came the thunderbolt of the German-Soviet pact. Hitler and Stalin understood each other. France didn't understand a thing. Poland understood only too well. It would bear the costs of implementation. In every movie newsreel on every screen in France, from Douai to Villefranche-de-Rouergue, from Menton to La Rochelle, one saw the bright and jerky image of Stalin, the very picture of bewhiskered mirth, offering a toast to the health of the German chancellor. This was a difficult pill to swallow for the French Communist Party, which Daladier outlawed posthaste. But communists can sometimes give proof of a sound digestion. The communist representatives might well lose their seats if they accepted the pact; many militants approved of it because they had no choice. Even Maurice Thorez, a future minister of the Republic, would be seen on October 4 to desert his 3rd Engineer's Regiment, which had been mobilized on September 3, 1939. The ways of dialectic are often inscrutable.
On September 1 the German army invaded Poland. On schedule. the Poles had clearly foreseen that any negotiation would have been useless. France and England had just mobilized their troops. On September 3 the two allies made the first move and declared war on Germany.
Céline returned to Paris. A young conscript, Pierre Ordoni, ran into the writer on the boulevard Saint-Germain. They had been introduced by a mutual friend. They talked on the street for a while, and then in a bistro.
War was here. It was all starting over -- another nightmare, new absurdities, and it was as though Céline's past came back to him, grabbing him by the throat -- the Great War, Sergeant-at-Arms Destouches, the galloping squadrons. What was left today? The soldiers were union men, no one was prepared to obey, let alone to resist and withstand the first quarter-hour's assault, that decisive quarter-hour; the Gare de Lyon (where trains leave Paris for the South) was a lot more crowded than the Gar de l'Est (where they leave for the East). Those were Céline's observations.
"I looked at him askance," Pierre Ordoni would write. "Exhaustion had etched his face, where there flitted something melancholy and bitter. I could only see him as the target of persecution and mediocrities and imbeciles....
"'Will you be mounted?' he finally asked me.
"'Yes. Battalion adjuncts 'earn' a horse. I happen to be a fairly good rider, too. A colonel's son.'
"He smiled imperceptibly.
"In that case, one last piece of advice: above all...no boots! Gaiters! Good old-fashioned regular-issue gaiters, bought in a store before you leave. With a flap over the shoe. Hmm? Watch out for your feet. Your butt will tan soon enough, but with boots, ten kilometers and your feet will be bleeding. there's no need to put on airs. War? It always ends up with the infantry. Remember: gaiters!"
It was as if Céline could already see the rout, the great footrace between France and its army as far as Biarritz or Carcassonne.
1. Robert Brasillach, Notre Avant-guerre, Le Livre de Poche, no. 3702, 1973, 244.
2. Quoted in Léon Poliakov, Histoire de l'antisémitisme 2, Le Livre de Poche "Pluriel," no. 8371, 1981, 450.
3. Ibid., 467.
5. Bagatelles pour un massacre, 94.
6. Ibid., 89.
7. Ibid., 317-318.
8. Ibid., 125.
9. Ibid., 178.
10. Ibid., 219.
11. In Cahirs de l'Herne, no. 3, 44.
12. In Dauphin, Les Critiques, 68-70.
13. Article reproduced in Cahiers de l'Herne, no. 5, 335-337.
14. Quoted in Dauphin, Les Critiques, 70-80.
15. Ibid., 82.
16. Ibid., 88.
17. Letter to Évelyne Pollet of early January 1938, in Cahiers Céline, no. 5, 195.
18. Letter dated January 31, 1938, ibid., 196.
19. In Bulletin célinien, no. 21, May 1984, 5.
20. D'un château l'autre, 246.
21. In Mahé, op. cit., 176.
22. In Cahiers de l'Herne, no. 3, 33.
23. "Quand Céline séjounait au Canada, [Céline's visit to Canada]" an article appearing in 1963 in Aspects de la France and reprinted in La revue célinienne, no 3/4, 8-9.
24. In Cahiers Céline, no. 5, 198.
25. Féerie pour une autre fois, 108.
26. Ibid., 110-111.
27. Concerning Olier Mordrel, the Breton autonomous movements and their connections to the German authorities, cf. Gibault, Céline 1932-1944, 309-310.
28. L'École des cadavres, 22.
29. Ibid., 223.
30. Ibid., 282.
31. Ibid., 287.
32. In Cahiers de l'Herne, no. 3, 45.
33. Article reproduced in extenso in Dauphin, Les Critiques, 89-95.
34. Personal testimony of Robert Durand published in La France enchainée, December 15-31, 1938, and reprinted in Bulletin célinien, no. 28, introduced by Paul Chambrillon.
35. In Cahiers Céline, no. 5, 144.
36. Cf. Céline, textes et documents III, op. cit., 100-101.
37. In Cahiers Céline, no. 1, 121.
38. Ordioni, op. cit., reprinted in Cahiers Céline, no. 1, 132.
39. In Cahiers de l'Herne, no. 3, 114.