Should France Honor Great Writing, Despite its Anti-Semitic Author?

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Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Should a country celebrate the work of one of its most venerated writers of the 20th century, even if he was also notorious as a vociferous anti-Semite?

That’s the dilemma French officials struggled with Friday, as they readied to honor Journey To the End of Night author Louis-Ferdinand Céline amid objections they’d be paying tribute to an unrepentant Nazi supporter.

Controversy erupted Thursday when French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld went public with his hostility to an annual event celebrating figures from France’s cultural pantheon that, this year, includes Céline. Journey To the End of Night remains one of the most translated books on the planet, and Céline’s status as one of the most influential authors in the past 100 years remains intact. However, Klarsfeld maintains it’s impossible to separate the artistic accomplishments of a man who, elsewhere, used those same talents to write ferociously anti-Semitic screeds–and whose support of the Nazis and flight to Hitler’s Germany earned him a prison term and stamp of “national disgrace” from a post-war French court.

(See more on Nazi propaganda photos of occupied Paris)

“Céline’s anti-Semitism is a discredit to him as a both man and as a writer…(and) his talent must not allow us forget the man who called for the killing of Jews during the Occupation,” Klarsfeld said on Jan. 20, when he called for Céline to be stricken from the event the following afternoon. “The Republic must respect its principles.”

Concurred Richard Prasquier, president of the umbrella organization assembling most of France’s Jewish movements: “This writer spent the last years of his life in anti-Semitic madness. I can understand him being the object of a colloquium, but not a national celebration.”

By noon Friday in Europe, it appeared French government and cultural officials were intent on retaining Céline in the ceremony when it begins at 6 PM (12.00pm ET) despite protests. The reason? Though the author’s hateful anti-Semitism is indisputable, Céline experts such as Sorbonne professor Henri Godard argue what’s being honored is the equally incontestable mark his legitimate work left on French and global literature. Ignoring that, he contends, would be a similar denial of his place in literary history as turning a blind eye to his infamy as an anti-Semite would be in examining his entire life.

(See an article on a landmark French ruling concerning deported Jews.)

Though that sounds convincing to some, it now seems clear whether Céline remains among the French artists honored Friday afternoon or is pulled at the last minute, the controversy surrounding the event means no one attending will feel much like celebrating.