December 8, 2019

Burying a Trifle


Note: Not long ago I wrote a column about my late in the game discovery of eBooks. At the encouragement of my friend Don Kennison, I dug a bit more deeply into one of the paragraphs toward the end of that column, and the following resulted. It was actually written for another publication, but the editor there balked, worried running the piece would get him in deep shit at his day job. I bounced it off another editor at another publication where it seemed a good fit, but when he wrote back he talked about everything except the story in question, meaning he felt it was too touchy for his audience as well. So I brought it back home where it began, and where I’m not bothered by any such gutless, simpering worries. Thank you.

This past August, during an idle online search to see which of Celine’s books in translation might be available in eBook editions (to be honest I wasn’t expecting much), I was stunned to find a Kindle edition of Trifles for a Massacre for sale on Amazon. It was, to say the least, unexpected. But that’s neither the beginning nor the end of the story.

            When French publishing house Denoël and Steele released Louis Ferdinand Celine’s debut novel, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit in 1932, the author was immediately hailed as an explosive new literary giant. The French loved his black humor, his radical approach to narrative, his equally radical use of gutter slang and obscenity, his railing against the absurdity of war, and his take no prisoners misanthropy. The novel received such an avalanche of attention and praise a first English translation appeared two years later as Journey to the End of the Night. His second novel, Mort ŕ Crédit, was published in 1936. While the critics at the time savaged the book as they savage all second novels by nature, it was in those pages that Celine’s trademark style of employing shattered sentence fragments strung together with ellipses and exclamation points first began to coalesce. The book would later be hailed as yet another masterpiece, a wildly groundbreaking and influential work that nearly single-handedly defined what came to be known as Modernism. It, too, was quickly translated into English as Death on the Installment Plan.

            Celine’s literary star began to dim a bit later that year with the publication of Mea Culpa, a savage anti-communist screed written in the aftermath of a state-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union. During his brief visit, he could see how very broken the system was, how deeply corrupt the leadership was, and he sensed the Big Lie at the core of Soviet communism. At the time, Western intellectuals, particularly in France and America, were still quite infatuated with communism and Stalin alike, and they didn’t care to hear any of this bad-mouthing on the part of a well-established crank. His blunt anti-Semitism didn’t help matters, either. Celine had kept his deep and scalding hatred of the Jews in check in the novels, but in his essays and correspondence it was on full display.

            As with the earlier novels, and thanks to Celine’s stature as a literary figure, Mea Culpa was translated and released in the States in 1938. It only received a single printing before vanishing and, last I checked, has never been republished. There may be a reason for that.

            The real blow to Celine’s status as a beloved, if ornery, French literary giant came in late 1937. When he submitted the manuscript for another polemical pamphlet entitled Bagatelles por un Massacre to Denoël and Steele, Bernard Steele, one of the publishing partners and an American Jew, was so horrified and disgusted by the contents he sold his half of the company and walked away rather than be associated with the book.

            The book begins deceptively enough, with Celine, a life-long ballet aficionado, presenting the treatments for two ballets he’d written and was hoping to sell to a respected dance troupe. After that seemingly innocent opening, the book quickly devolves into a cautionary rant, and an often prescient one. In Bagatelles, he attempted to warn France that another war was coming, that it was inevitable, and that if France got involved it would be devastating. More than that, they would be defeated. Celine, despite being a bottomless fount of boiling rage, was an unapologetic pacifist. He’d seen too much of war and human stupidity to be any different. Along the way he also warned against a future marked by deadly pollution, the economic burden of post-war reconstruction, the homogenization of literature, the worship of celebrity, and the poisonous nature of nationalism. He spent much of the book viciously attacking what would become his standard bugaboos: communism, Jesuits, what he terms “the lukewarm,” freemasons, critics, the French and a half dozen other groups. But no one remembers any of that.

            To this day, Bagatelles por un Massacre is remembered only as an ugly, sputtering, anti-Semitic screed. And certainly there’s no getting around Celine’s monomaniacal hatred of the Jews. He shrieked that the Jews controlled the banks, they controlled the communists, they controlled France, they controlled the whole world, and his last two books got bad reviews because all the literary critics were Jewish. The coming war, he said, was being engineered by the Jews same as they’d engineered the last war, and they would be the only ones to profit off it. Once the war ended, he claimed, the Jews would continue to profit from it by portraying themselves as the war’s true victims. In terms of disturbing prescience, four years before the first Jewish prisoners were tattooed in Auschwitz in 1941, he proposed a registry by which everyone of Jewish descent would come to be known by a number. Not a name.

            He also paused at a few points to, if not exactly praise Hitler, at least note that Hitler, unlike French leaders, spoke honestly and directly. And if you were one of those still infatuated with communism, he suggested you compare what Stalin did for the workers in the Soviet Union with what Hitler did for German workers.

            Stylistically, he pushed the splintered prose that first began to emerge in Death on the Installment Plan to greater extremes. Over 400 pages of sentence fragments assailing the Jews for every imaginable (and a few fairly unimaginable) crime against humanity can, admittedly, become a bit tiresome and repetitive, but there’s also an undeniable, obsessive brilliance to it that’s both exhausting and exhilarating.

            Despite the explosion of outrage that greeted the book upon its release (Celine, a physician, was even fired from his job at a hospital for the poor), Bagatelles first printing sold an estimated 75,000 copies. Remember, France had a long history as one of the most anti-Semitic nations in Europe. The problem some people had with Celine wasn’t so much that he hated the Jews, but that he was so darn crude about it, exaggerating things to such an absurd degree he could be discrediting “legitimate” anti-Jewish groups.

            A second edition was released in 1938, this one with an introduction by famed, or rather ill-famed, French writer, editor, journalist, film critic, anti-Semite and pro-fascist Robert Brasillach. Amid all the praise Brasillach heaps on the essay, he is also forced to admit Celine’s own brand of cartoonish anti-Semitism could be a bit much at times.

            Two more pamphlets of much the same tone would soon follow, 1938’s L'École des Cadavres and 1941’s Les Beaux Draps. In time the three works would come to be considered a sort of trilogy often simply referred to as “the three pamphlets.” Together, they amounted to the only evidence anyone needed to denounce or dismiss Celine, both as a writer and a human. Of the three, Bagatelles remains the best known and most infamous of the lot.

            Bagatelles was officially banned in 1939, when the French government passed a law prohibiting the sale of books that incited hatred among the country’s citizens. The ban didn’t last very long.

            Following the German occupation in 1940 the book became available once again under the Vichy government, and went through two more printings. In fact during the occupation, it was the second biggest-selling book in France. The story goes that when Celine complained to the curator of a 1941 anti-Semitic exhibit, “The Jews and France,” that Bagatelles was not carried in the gallery bookstore, the curator apologized, explaining the distributors were all sold out.

            In 1945, following the end of the occupation and the war, Bagatelles once again vanished from bookstores. It would, however, be used as evidence against Celine when he, like so many other collaborators, was charged with treason. The book, the state prosecutors claimed, helped inspire other collaborationists who, in turn, were responsible for sending tens of thousands of French Jews to concentration camps. Celine, who was being held in a prison in Copenhagen at the time of the trial, was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted, but Celine, who would eventually be allowed back in the country in 1951, was declared a national disgrace.

            Although bowdlerized bootleg editions would continue to circulate on the black market, for the next roughly seventy years, Bagatelles, which had never been translated into English, would not be available in any official form anywhere. The opening paragraph of Robert Brasillach’s introduction to the 1938 edition (later revised for the 1943 edition) could have been written in the twenty-first century:

“There’s a book you won’t hear a word about on the radio. There’s a book the right-thinking newspapers will not speak about, except to refer to it in prim and reproachful terms. There’s a book about which the tabloids of the left will say nothing, except the most inept of them, which only have words of scorn. There’s a book the sale and distribution of which is quite possibly forbidden. There’s a book against which there will be more a conspiracy of silence than of attack.”

            Although it was long rumored the book’s unavailability could be attributed to the fact it had been banned throughout Europe and North America for its virulent anti-Semitism, this is not true. Except for that one brief period in France, Bagatelles had never been banned. The issue was actually two-fold. First, Celine himself had reclaimed the rights to Bagatelles and the other pamphlets, saying he didn’t want the books republished—at least not until someone made him a decent offer. After his death in 1961, his widow, Lucette Destouches, upheld his wishes and the books remained out of print. And second, even if the rights had been available, no respected publishing house—certainly not in America—was about to touch the material, considering the media backlash, the boycotts, the protests and lawsuits they would face as a result. The material was simply too incendiary, and the trouble it would cause wasn’t worth it. I knew a few underground publishers back in the Eighties who kept telling me they were going to release the pamphlets, copyright issues be damned, but never did.

            Even though no English translation was ever made available, over the years at least the titles of the pamphlets were translated for the sake of easier shorthand among non-French-speaking Celine fans. L'École des Cadavres became either School for Cadavers or School for Corpses. Les Beaux Draps became The Fine Mess, and, unfortunately, Bagatelle por un Massacre was translated as Trifles for a Massacre, and the name stuck. The latter always bugged me, as it made no grammatical sense. My doubts were confirmed by translator Mitchell Abidor, who explained, “It isn't ‘trifles,’ which is, indeed a translation for the word bagatelles. Celine was referring either to a brief musical piece or an old dance form, both called ‘bagatelle.’  So the title in English should be Bagatelles for a Massacre. Everyone makes that mistake.”

            During all those decades of silence when the book was wholly unavailable, Bagatelles/Trifles took on an almost mythical status as a dangerous and evil work, eliciting a violent gut reaction among people who had never read it, or anything at all by Celine. He was a Nazi and an anti-Semite, and that was all they needed to know. They’d heard that third-hand someplace, or read it online, and so it must be true. It’s not in the least surprising, but something I still find maddening. If you come to that conclusion after reading the book yourself, fine, then we can have an intelligent discussion. But it’s a step most won’t—and couldn’t, as it happens—take. Even if it had been available, why would they want to waste their time reading a dumb book by a crazy Nazi and anti-Semite? Drawing your own conclusions from some guy on Twitter is so much easier.

            In his 1992 book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, University of Chicago English professor Wayne C. Booth set out, among other things, to explain which authors were good for us, and which were not. Along the way he argued, in essence, that Celine was like an infectious demon hiding in the pages of his work, and if you read his books, you, too, will become infected, demonic, and a terrible person. So best not to read him at all.

            Over time the shrill paranoia surrounding not just Bagatelles but Celine in general has come to reflect the ignorantly superstitious world against which he aimed so much invective. Consider that in 2011, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the French Culture Minister struck Celine’s name from the list of the five hundred most important French cultural icons because he was a nasty fellow.

            Then in 2012, sixty-seven years after Bagatelles went out of print, half a century after her husband’s death, facing mounting tax debts, and quite possibly in response to that slap from the Culture Minister, Lucette Destouches at last relented and agreed to sell the rights to the pamphlets to the esteemed French publishing house Gallimard. Shortly thereafter Gallimard publicly announced their intention to release all three notorious pamphlets in a thousand-page volume in French that would include extensive scholarly notations. But the backlash was immediate and fierce—again from people who only knew about the pamphlets via hearsay—and Gallimard opted to shelve the project. At that point Editions Huit, a small press located in Quebec, picked up the rights to the pamphlets and published them in a limited edition with the stipulation they could not be sold or transported outside of Canada.

            Five years later in late 2017, Ms. Destouches, then a hundred six years old and still trying to pay off that tax debt, put her house up for sale. She and Celine had lived in that suburban Paris house since 1951, and she initially offered it to three universities, hoping they might want to turn it into a museum. All three turned her down flat, so she put the house on the open market. At the same time, Gallimard resurrected the idea of releasing the thousand-page volume of the pamphlets.

            Given the rebirth of the Far Right throughout Europe and America at the time, you do have to wonder if there was a bit of cynical exploitation involved in Gallimard’s timing. But the reaction was just as violent as it had been in 2012, only more so.

            The publisher argued that Mein Kampf had never been out of print, and that the Celine work, though shocking and offensive, was of undeniably greater literary importance. That was met with the counter argument that Mein Kampf had great historical significance, while Bagatelles and the other pamphlets were merely the incoherent hateful ravings of a clearly unbalanced nutjob. Lawsuits were threatened to prevent the book’s release. The publishers were even called in for an unprecedented meeting with the inter-ministerial delegation to fight against racism, anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT hatred. Gallimard had insisted from the start their intention was to include extensive notes by a Celine scholar to frame the book in its proper context, but when the Prime Minister’s delegation recommended the publisher furthermore bring in some historians and other specialists to offer their opinions on, say, Celine’s role in propagating the Holocaust, Gallimard politely rebuffed their suggestions. Still, the planned spring 2018 release of the book was indefinitely postponed, and eventually dropped again.

            While Gallimard was publicly wrangling with a controversy that was leaving them looking mighty bad in the eyes of a general public previously unaware of Celine, a few European New Right extremist publishing houses decided to charge on ahead and publish their own editions under the radar.

            Les Editions de La Reconquęte released what was essentially the same book Gallimard was gong to release, while Omnia Veritas released a reprint of the 1943 edition of Bagatelles with the Robert Brasillach introduction. No one noticed, as these were publishers who sold exclusively to the like-minded, without the high-profile prestige or distribution network of a house like Gallimard. Who was going to spend that much time trawling the new releases of a publisher like Omnia Veritas, which specialized in original language reprints of historical works on fascism and anti-Semitism?

            As new subterranean French editions kept appearing around Europe, there was no hint of an English translation in the offing. Bagatelles por un Massacre was a book I had been trying to track down for nearly thirty years, shortly after I became hooked on Celine. For the record, I am neither a white nationalist nor an anti-Semite, considering both stances kind of, well, stupid. Simply put, Celine was one of the most important and influential writers of the Twentieth Century. He completely re-wrote the conventions of what constituted proper style and storytelling. Without Celine’s sprawling, furious, phantasmagoric black comedies, there would have likely been no Henry Miller, no Jean Genet, no Beats, no Vonnegut, no William Gaddis, Nathaniel West, Hubert Selby, Thomas Pynchon, or a thousand others. At least not in the form we recognize today.

            Despite all that, and thanks in no small part to the pamphlets, finding Celine in English translation has been no mean feat over the years. In 2009, fifty-five years after its original French publication, Normance, the last of Celine’s twelve novels to be translated into English, was finally released in the States for the first time. But a vast majority of his work—essays, correspondence, reviews and the like remain inaccessible to non-French speakers, with Bagatelles being the most prominent of the missing titles. Regardless of its politics or morality, it was an incredibly important piece of writing within the larger context of his work. Somehow I had the impression there was more going on in Bagatelles than the livid one-sentence dismissals would allow, but I had no way of proving this to myself. I was not interested in being an apologist for his rabid anti-Semitism, I just had to read the fucking book and draw my own conclusions. Guess I’m funny that way. That’s why I was so amazed and delighted and, to be honest, a little suspicious when I saw Trifles for a Massacre for sale on Amazon. But what choice did I have? I bought the Kindle edition immediately and downloaded it, convinced if I put it off another hour the book would vanish.

            Even before I started reading, I became curious about the publisher and translator. For the amount of vitriol aimed at the book, who in their right mind would put out an English edition? And translating Celine has always been notoriously difficult, so who was going to put in the effort on a book like Bagatelles? Perhaps understandably, neither bit of information was readily available, either on the Amazon page or within the Kindle edition itself.

            A bit more digging revealed it to be, in theory anyway, an Omnia Veritas release. At the time I had never heard of Omnia Veritas, knew nothing at all about them, so of course looked them up online. It only took the briefest of perusals to glean they were, as described above, a Europe-based publisher specializing in original language historical works on fascism and anti-Semitism. Okay, then, it made sense they would release Bagatelles, but look as I might I could only find evidence of the French edition, with nary a peep about a translation.

            Things grew even more curious when I stumbled across the Robert Brasillach introduction posted on the website of the San Francisco-based white nationalist publisher Counter-Currents. On the Counter-Currents page, the translator was cited as one Greg Johnson, who also happened to be Counter-Currents’ editor-in-chief. I thought I at last had my answer, until I scanned through the counter-Currents catalog of Far Right and nationalist titles and found they did not offer the book for sale, and never had. That introduction on the website, a stand-alone page, was as close as they came, and there was no explanation why the intro had been posted, save for its expression of a white nationalist worldview.

            I still didn’t have my answer, still wasn’t sure who had released Trifles in English, but at least I had the—or at least a—translator’s name. I dropped Mr. Johnson (if that was indeed his real name) a pleasant note, asking if he might be able to tell me a bit about the pedigree of this particular English edition. Within a few hours I received a reply.

Dear Jim,

I did not translate that book, and know nothing about that edition.

            Well, hmmm. Okay then. That reply begged a thousand follow-up questions, first and foremost being, “If that’s the case, why are you cited as the translator on the . . . oh, never mind.” I decided to let it slide. I’d dealt with plenty of these types in the past, and the paranoia can run mighty deep, especially in response to a query from a New York-based journalist. I would get nothing more out of him.

            My quest had an abrupt and decidedly anti-climactic conclusion when, after about a week of investigating, I returned once again to the Omnia Veritas site and spotted for the first time the “Books in English” section.

            So never mind.

            I can of course understand the arguments for continuing to suppress Celine’s vicious and ugly anti-Semitic book (even though there is a hell of a lot more going on within its pages). With the re-emergence of a vocal, violent and growing White Nationalist movement across America, and an accompanying spike in crimes aimed at immigrant and Jewish targets, why feed that fire? The world doesn’t need another anti-Semitic book, especially one this vile. Anyone who would release such a thing would be profiting off the blood of any Jews who were brutalized as a result. Also, having recognized the danger they pose, there is a popular move on now to ban Right Wing extremists from social network platforms and other popular websites to prevent the spread of their despicable ideas, so publishing Trifles seems a bit counterproductive to that effort.

            I do understand all that, but would argue, as history has shown again and again and again, the attempts to silence and quash ideas we consider offensive or dangerous will only give those being silenced a sense of martyrdom and power and righteousness. It will also make those suppressed ideas all the more tantalizing to those who may not have considered them before. In short, the effort will not only fail, it will backfire. Better to bring it all out into the open and the light for serious discussion and debate.

            As for the fear Celine’s book might incite violence, well, having read and heard numerous interviews with the soldiers of the White Nationalist movement in recent years, I seriously doubt most would be able to make it past the first five pages. We’re not talking The Turner Diaries here. It’s a dense, convoluted and at times confounding book, packed with references to long forgotten French administrators, academics and minor literary critics. Might as well hand them Pound’s Cantos and see how inflamed they become.

            I am not interested in the book’s socio-political message. I’m interested in it in exclusively literary terms, as a necessary and important link for a fuller understanding of an extremely important and complex writer. Suppressing the book is a bit like suppressing Hemingway’s or T.S. Eliot’s letters, because they expressed some none-too-popular ideas. You want a list of famous authors who were monstrous human beings, yet whose work isn’t suppressed?

            I honestly wish a respectable publishing house like Dalkey or New Directions—both of whom have released several Celine titles in the past—had the balls to release Trifles for a Massacre and the other pamphlets with whatever disclaimers they feel necessary, but it ain’t gonna happen. So I’m sorry, if a neo-Nazi publisher is the only one who’s going to release a book I’ve been hunting for three decades, then they’re the ones who are going to get my money. Fuck you.


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