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France

Fifty years after death, France wrestles with legacy of writer Céline

Text by Guillaume LOIRET

Latest update : 2011-01-22

Is it possible to celebrate a body of work and censure the man behind it? A decision to exclude the acclaimed – and notoriously anti-Semitic – author Louis-Ferdinand Céline from a list of posthumous honours has left France pondering the question.

"One can love Céline without being an anti-Semite as one can love Proust without being a homosexual!" French President Nicolas Sarkozy quipped during a visit to India in 2008. While Sarkozy’s reasoning was peculiar, it nonetheless reflected a dilemma that many lovers and caretakers of French literature wrestle with: how, and even whether, to honour the late author Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

The writer of Journey to the End of the Night may the president’s favourite, but Céline’s name will not be included in this year’s liste des célébrations nationales, an annual honour-role marking significant anniversaries linked to France’s cultural heritage.

The writer’s literary genius is not in question. But 50 years after Céline’s death, his brazen anti-Semitism and support for France's pro-Nazi Vichy government continue to cast a shadow on his groundbreaking body of work.

After a reported two days of calculated consideration, French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand announced Friday that Céline would be barred from the list, which honours, among other people and events, the creation of France’s National Centre of Space Research, the first issue of the world-famous comic book series Asterix, and the birth of classical composer Franz Liszt.

"I welcome Frederic Mitterrand’s gesture,” Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), told France24.com. “I find it unthinkable that Céline be evoked as an example to celebrate. When the pen is despicable, so is the writer.”

A running controversy

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who died on July 1, 1961, is France’s most widely-read author after Marcel Proust. He rose to prominence in the 1930s, but wrote viciously anti-Semitic essays during the rise of Nazi Germany.

He collaborated with the Vichy regime and was exiled after France’s liberation, but returned home in 1951 after being granted amnesty.

In the days before the controversial writer was excluded from the culture tribute, Serge Klarsfeld, the president of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France (FFDJF), wrote: “Céline’s talent as a writer should not let us to forget the man who appealed for the murder of Jews during the occupation.”

Like the CRIF, the FFDJF also hailed Mitterrand’s decision. Céline’s censure in 2011, however, did not win unanimous praise in France.

Following the statements made by Jewish groups, several academics and writers urged the culture minister not mix Céline “the literary genius" with Céline “the anti-Semitic bastard."

Henri Godard, one of France’s leading specialists on Céline, told AFP on Friday that the decision, “Looks like censorship, even if Céline is an immensely difficult case.”

Date created : 2011-01-22

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