In 1970, I attended a lecture by Joseph Heller at Valparaiso University. Heller’s best-selling novel (Catch-22) was about to be released as a major motion picture.
During the lecture, Heller mentioned the inspiration for his main character came from a French novelist. I made a mental note to check out that novelist, but by the time I got home, I’d already forgotten his name. So I wrote a letter to Heller.
Much to my surprise, I got a quick response providing the answer as well as recommendations for other writers to check out. I immediately read Journey to the End of the Night and afterwards, Catch-22 seemed like a pale imitation (sorry Joe). I couldn’t understand how a book that created the modern anti-hero and revolutionized stream-of-consciousness writing remained so obscure. I considered myself an authority on counterculture literature, and had been reading everything I could find for over five years, and yet, didn’t discover Celine until I was 19 years old.
The reason seemed to be Celine had become a rabid anti Semite after the lack of success of his first novel. Maybe his first publisher was Jewish and that got the ball rolling. But our two most famous American novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway were both notorious anti Semites, and The Sun Also Rises positively drips with hatred of Jews and gays, yet it didn’t seem to hold back Hemingway’s career at all.
Celine wasn’t the only man of letters to conclude that a conspiracy existed between British intelligence and some dynastic banking families of Jewish heritage. Didn’t Ezra Pound come to similar conclusions?
Journey to the End of the Night is a masterpiece and should have been recognized as such. The fact that Celine later in life wrote essays suggesting Jews should be expelled from France really should have no impact on his previous work as an artist, especially since there are no traces of antisemitism in his first novel.
Of course, Heller was Jewish himself, and Catch-22 never would have existed without Celine’s inspiration. If critics are going to insist on rejecting Celine’s considerable artistic accomplishments based on views he later expressed in essays, then I’m afraid there is very long line of racists whose work ought be treated with equal disdain. Celine was a huge influence on William S. Burroughs and many other groundbreaking novelists. Bukowski called him “the greatest writer of 2,000 years.”
Within a few months, I would write “The Stockholm Manifesto,” a rant heavily influenced by Celine. You can read the short story in my fiction collection titled 1966.
One Reply to “Joseph Heller and Louis-Ferdinand Celine”
Interestingly enough, almost all of Celine’s works have been translated into English except his anti-Semitic pamphlets. His Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre) (1937) seems only to be available by translator unknown at http://www.vho.org/aaargh/fran/livres6/CELINEtrif.pdf. L’École des cadavres (The School of Corpses) (1938) and Les Beaux draps (The Fine Mess) (1941) remain untranslated.