Louis-Ferdinand Céline was one of France’s greatest novelists – but plans to republish his anti-Semitic writing has dramatically divided Paris.
n a cold but sunny afternoon in late January I paid a visit to the Passage de Choiseul in the commercial heart of Paris. The passage is a covered arcade, one of many such places that were built across the Right Bank of Paris in the early part of the 19th century, and which were effectively the world’s first shopping malls. The Passage de Choiseul is also one of the most important and totemic sites in French literary history. It was the childhood home of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, arguably the greatest French writer of the 20th century, who still regularly outranks Marcel Proust in readers’ surveys and sales. Most significantly for his admirers, the passage was immortalised by Céline in his two magnificent novels, Journey to the End of the Night andDeath on the Instalment Plan, published in the 1930s. In Céline’s day the place was poor and decrepit and “stank of dogs’ piss”. Nowadays it is expensive and chic. But there is no trace of its most famous literary inhabitant – an extremely unusual fact in France, a country that prides itself on its literature, and where even the meanest provincial town has at least one Avenue Victor Hugo or Lycée Baudelaire.
I bought some pens and a notebook in the upmarket stationery shop just opposite the entrance to number 67, where I knew Céline had lived, and asked the lady behind the counter why there was no trace of the great man. She said that she was often asked this question by Céline’s admirers, who came from all over the world to this place, and that she did not know why there was no commemorative plaque or any other sign that Céline had lived here. She then hesitated, looked around to check that we were alone, and said quietly: “There are many Jews here who control business. They don’t want anyone to remember him.” [ . . . ] More at: The literature debate tearing apart Paris: should Céline’s racist pamphlets be published?