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Introduction to Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre

1,060 words

[1]Translated by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

The following text is from the Les Editions de La Reconquête reprint of the French edition of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Bagatelles pour un massacre, which is available from their website [2]. I wish to thank the publisher for making this text available for translation.

It would be so much easier if Trifles for a Massacre were for Céline what The Jewish Danger is for Marcel Jouhandeau. On the one hand, there would be the good Céline, author of imperishable masterpieces like Journey to the End of the Night [3] or Guignol’s Band [4], and, on the other hand, the bad Céline, author of pamphlets of the lowest order.

Alas, civic morals find no satisfaction here: Louis Destouches by no means loses his talent when he turns into a polemicist. Quite the contrary: he is never better than in excess. Whether you deplore it or not, Bagatelles is a great book, undoubtedly unbearable but also brilliant in its invective and vis comica. It is, as Charles Plisnier summed it up, in his manner, in five words: “A brilliant and wicked book.”

After the war, Sartre, thinking of course of Céline, says that he can conceive of a great novel written by an anti-Semite but not of a great novel that is anti-Semitic. And it is true that the novels of Céline contain no attacks on the Jews. Problem: Bagatelles, which appeared at the end of 1937, also belongs to literature insofar as the pamphleteer who appears there is, indeed, of the first order. But also because this book comprises a literary manifesto and aesthetics that precedes the defense and the illustration of Célinian poetics that was unfolded twenty years later in the famous Interviews with Professor Y. And finally because this scathing attack includes many beautifully crafted pages. One thinks, for example, of the description of Leningrad: “It holds the whole city in its hand, the sea! . . . diaphanous, fantastic, outstretched . . . at arm’s length . . . all along the banks . . .”

The contemporary reader will also not fail to be struck by the literally prophetic visions of the author regarding the standardization of the book, the stupefying worship of celebrities, deadly pollution, art gangrenous with ideology, etc. How can one fail to see that everything denounced by Céline at the end of the Thirties is true and even worse since then?

On the anti-Semitism of the writer, everything has already been said. The problem is well-known: the 21st century reader cannot obviously disregard the atrocities committed during the Second World War when he reads this pamphlet written three years before, the very purpose of which was to help prevent it. Today, the title even of the book is misinterpreted. Educated for decades to “never forget,” the new generations think that the massacre in question is of the Jews, while at the same time the cover of the book (“For a good laugh in the trenches”) was without ambiguity—resolute pacifism being another component of Trifles.

Céline, let us note, was seriously wounded in 1914; he pulled through, animated by the categorical rejection of war, the more so as he considered the conflict fratricidal. In a recent book, The Testament of Céline (Bernard de Fallois, 2009), Paul Yonnet shows clearly that the cuirassier Louis Destouches became a keen adversary of the exaggerated nationalism that impeded, in his view, the unity of the race.  Unlike many war veterans, Céline was not a Germanophobe. And if he became “racist,” it is because racially homogeneous nations can live in peace, but, on the contrary, nations that are racially mixed—and thus “against nature”—are tinderboxes of civil war.

Manipulated by the Jews, they would think only of killing one another. Céline’s reflections were born from the war but were reinforced by the experience gained within the League of Nations in the Twenties. The third act of his play The Church [5] shows his outrage.

When one analyzes the critical reception of Trifles for a Massacre, one realizes that this satire clashed less with the mentalities of the time than one would think today. The book was well received on the right by L’Action française or Candide, yet it was also well-received on the left by La Nouvelle revue française and even . . . Le Canard enchaîné. This is because anti-Semitism was then a widespread opinion, including in the literary and journalistic world.

The violence of Trifles is also explained by the miserable reception, one year earlier, of the masterpiece Death on the Installment Plan [6]. Even today, it is truly heart-rending to read the press clippings for this novel. Seldom has criticism so missed the mark as with what Pierre Michon, an expert on the matter, regarded as “a perfect book.” For Celine, the matter is clear: the critic is Jewish (or Judaized) and thus cannot appreciate the literary revolution that he heralded. The more so as it is founded on natural emotion, (Celtic) lyricism, and not on sham, artifice, and insincerity. Celine prides himself on having escaped from the deformation of the colleges: he has writing . . . in his blood.

Admittedly, today one can read these Trifles without concerning oneself with esthetic and political battles. It remains the powerful expression of a writer who fuses the gifts of invective and comedy.

If anti-Semitism is blameworthy, anti-communism is not, or not more so. It is known that for many years, the copyright holder cherished the idea of an anthology including Mea culpa (1936) and the pages of Trifles on Russia. It undoubtedly was abandoned to avoid the charge of censoring a text which also has value as a historical document. So much the better, since a book like this one must be republished in an integral manner. All or nothing. “One must say everything or remain completely silent,” wrote Céline himself.

Since his widow refuses, one half-century after the death of her husband, to allow the republication of what are incorrectly called the “pamphlets” (this term indicates, in principle, a short work), it falls to guerilla publishers to do it. It is all the more necessary if one understands this at the very least paradoxical situation: many works decoding these texts are accessible but the texts themselves are not available to readers eager to form their own ideas. This gap is henceforth filled. And the amateurs can be allowed to discover the forbidden continent of Céline’s writings, of which Trifles is without a doubt the greatest success.