When we think of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the first thing that comes to mind is his masterful Journey to the End of the Night. After that, we maybe remember he was a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Semite.
- Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 240 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.
Ernst Jünger, the German writer, remembered in his journal the typical conversation to be had with Céline: “He said how surprised he was that, as soldiers, we do not shoot, we do not hang, we do not exterminate the Jews — he is astonished that someone in possession of a bayonet does not make unlimited use of it.”
It wasn’t just his charming conversation — as recounted in Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Céline also wrote propaganda pamphlets, dedicated one of his books to the hangman’s noose used to execute Jews, and made public statements calling for the destruction of a people. Even his contemporaries didn’t know what to do with him. Gide wrote in his journal, “Surely it’s a joke. And if it’s not a joke, Céline must be completely mad.”
And yet his reputation as a groundbreaking novelist remains intact, and Journey remains on syllabi across the country. France didn’t think enough of it to exclude him from the list of official cultural celebrations for 2011, and any objections were mild at first. Something along the lines of “Are we sure we want to do this?” Then people dug up his writings from the era, and we all recoiled in horror. His politics were not closely coupled with his reputation as a writer, and so there was not a knee-jerk “what the fuck” reaction. It took a while, but the pressure finally built until Frédéric Mitterrand — who knows personally all about contributions to culture and questionable personal belief systems — announced Céline had been removed from the program.
Artists are not saints. We all know this. What we can’t decide is when to dole out punishment for their actions. Is it enough to prosecute them when they’re alive? Or should we continue to persecute their reputations after their deaths?
Say the name Knut Hamsun, on the other hand, and the first thing in your head is probably “Nazi.” Not Hunger. Not “brilliant Norwegian writer,” but “Nazi.” And while our reaction should be one of disgust, the fact that Hamsun was in his doddering old age showing signs of mental decline even before he went all rah-rah Hitler (he was 80 at the time Germany invaded Norway) — whereas Céline was an intelligent, mentally competent writer in the bloom of youth — it makes you wonder how arbitrary are these reactions. When Norway recently tried to honor its native son, the response was immediate and furious: How dare you, after what he’s done?
And yet Hunger, the syllabus-friendly novel about a writer starving in the late 19th century, is perhaps a greater achievement than Journey. With its psychological depth, its taut and lean structure, it’s almost impossible to believe the book is a 19th-century work. Hamsun manages to portray a man on the brink of starvation without a shred of pity. Above all, the narrator wishes to maintain a sense of dignity — and he sacrifices opportunities for food and housing with his stubborn pride. Hamsun obliges his character. Even when hunger turns his thoughts obsessive and unhinged, there’s a begrudging respect for a man who wants to earn his keep, even if every day he can’t, he becomes physically and emotionally weaker, making it harder and more unlikely he’ll be able to work his way out of it.
And that was something we saw in Hamsun after the war, too — a refusal to admit he had been wrong. Even after the revelation of the death camps, even after the evils of Norway’s collaborationist government. Perhaps it was his refusal to back down and retract that sealed the fate of his reputation. His body was spared — it was decided he would not be tried for treason, due to his advanced age. They took it out instead on his oeuvre. • 7 March 2011