Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, writing under the pen name Céline, published his novel Journey to the End of the Night in 1932; it was praised by his contemporaries as a work of genius, and still retains its place as a seminal work of French modernism. A few years later, he began expressing his admiration for Hitler and hope for a Franco-German alliance, writing a series of viciously anti-Semitic pamphlets. In Céline’s eyes, the fall of France in 1940 was a proud moment. Reviewing a recent, meticulous study of the novelist’s views on Jews and race, Frederic Raphael explores how he returned to polite society after the war:
After France’s capitulation in 1940, . . . Céline was one of a band—Robert Brasillach, Drieu la Rochelle, and Lucien Rebatet at its head—whose gloating collaboration with France’s overlords ensured that their articles and books were printed in unprecedentedly large numbers. . . .
Céline’s post-war affectations of never having meant what he said, or even of never having said it, leave him without the cover of honest monstrosity. Annick Duraffour and Pierre André Taguieff [the new book’s authors] unpick the selective quotations and outright lies that allowed Céline and his bande to pervert the truth about his wriggles and wangles. As early as 1950, he had his supporters. . . .
The factitious category of “genius” spared Ezra Pound, as it has Céline, the consequences of “mere words.” Tactfully confined for a few years, Pound returned to sanity and celebrity status in 1949 by being awarded the first Bollingen prize by a jury of T.S. Eliot and friends. Only the poet Karl Shapiro dissented, to his cost. A veteran of the war in the Pacific, he made the bad career move of taking it seriously that, at the [zenith] of the Holocaust, Pound—while a guest of Mussolini—wrote that Jewish profiteers were transporting Europe’s best men to their deaths in—yes, he actually specified—cattle trucks.
After the war, Pound, like Céline, resorted to self-pity and dissimulation: anti-Semitism was declared a “suburban prejudice.” His seemingly mortified lines “Take down thy vanity, I say, take down” were in no way addressed by “ole Ez” to himself but to those who judged him a scoundrel. Oddly enough, Jews of one kind and another came to make pilgrimages to see, if not quite honor, Pound and Céline. Whatever the motive—perhaps the hope the great man might say it ain’t so—the pseudo-paradox of the artist who is also a [loathsome person] has abiding, morbid interest.