PARIS (AFP) – The head of France’s most prestigious publishing house said Sunday he still wanted to reprint a collection of violently anti-Semitic pamphlets by Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
Antoine Gallimard declared that he had “not renounced” plans to publish a 1,000-page compendium of the controversial novelist’s essays from the late 1930s after an outcry forced him to put the project on ice in January.
“I have suspended the project, but I have not renounced it,” he told the Journal du dimanche (JDD) newspaper.
“The reason for the suspension was simple: you cannot build anything worthwhile when a fire is raging. You cannot make yourself heard in a boiling amphitheatre,” he added, referring to heated debate over the texts.
France’s main Jewish group said the essays, including some written after the start of the German occupation of France, were a “gross incitation to racist and anti-Semitic hate”.
The French lawyer and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld threatened legal action to stop them, saying that Celine had “influenced a whole generation of collaborationists who sent French Jews to their deaths.”
But Gallimard said he still wanted to reprint a “critical edition” of the diatribes, putting them and the novelist in their historical context with introductions by Celine expert Professor Regis Tettamanzi and acclaimed biographer Pierre Assouline, who is Jewish.
– ‘Ignoble genius’ –
The publisher said it was important to confront the truth about the writer of the “Journey to the End of the Night” and show that “a genius can at the same time be an ignoble man”.
The three essays — “Bagatelles for a Massacre”, “School for Corpses” and “The Best Sheets” — badly tarnished the reputation of a man then seen as one of France’s greatest authors.
Celine fled France after the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944 and was later convicted in his absence of collaborating with the Nazis.
He died in 1961 saying he did not want the pamphlets to be reissued, but the lawyer of his widow, Lucette Destouches, now 105, recently gave consent for a reprint.
Gallimard denied the French government had summonsed him to explain himself but told the JDD that he had “chosen to meet” a senior civil servant in charge of the fight against racism and hate crimes.
A group of four leading French historians had earlier signed a blistering attack on the publisher in the weekly magazine L’Obs, calling the idea to reprint the pamphlets “at best voyeurism and at worst nostalgia, which risked sanctifying incitement to murder.”
The pamphlets, which were never banned in France, come out of copyright in 2031.
Gallimard’s supporters argued the texts were readily available on the internet “without any mediation or context” and could be also bought from second-hand book shops across France.