Translated by Greg Johnson
The following text is from the Les Editions de La Reconquête reprint of the French edition of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s L’École des cadavres, which is available from their website. I wish to thank the publisher for making this text available for translation.
A Preface for L’École des cadavres (The School for Cadavers)? A hard task, since Céline himself wrote one. It appeared under the Occupation accompanying a republication of this work which was first published in November 1938. Oddly enough, Céline’s widow in 1986, then again in 2003, authorized the republication of the aforesaid Preface, but not the republication of the text itself (!). Just as she on several occasions authorized the reprinting of Mea culpa, the anticommunist “pamphlet,” but not that of the three other pamphlets. Céline himself did not wish to see these texts republished after the war. From the point of view of literary strategy, one can understand why. The more so as after the bitter failure of Féerie pour une autre fois (Fable for Another Time, 1952), it was a question of reconquering hostile or indifferent readers and critics. Better not to stir up those embers.
It is best to say it straightaway: a book like the School has become incomprehensible today because so much of its historical context is obscure for the majority of our contemporaries. Or deformed by the vision of the atrocities that occurred during the war and that Céline wanted precisely to avoid. “They shamelessly twist the meaning of my pamphlets. I am a keen patriotic preserver of the French and the Aryans—and at the same time the Jews as well! I did not want Auschwitz, Buchenwald. Fucking Hell! Enough! I knew well that declaring the war one would go automatically in these appalling ‘Petioteries’!” he wrote to Jean Paulhan after the war.
One cannot understand the engaged writer Céline without knowing that in 1914 the cuirassier Louis Destouches was seriously wounded on the Yser Front. After the atrocious butchery of the Great War, many war veterans could not escape a feeling of deep aversion for the Germans. Céline managed to control this natural feeling, his visceral pacifism taking precedence over every other inclination. During the 1930s, he realized that the Treaty of Versailles carried within it the germs of a new European conflagration. He absolutely wanted to avoid it! Indeed, he considered it to be a fratricidal conflict between two peoples that were only artificially opposed. He also presaged that, if a new war occurred, it would be a catastrophe for France. The School for Cadavers was thus a book written in an emergency to prevent this war. How? By establishing a continental alliance against all saber-rattlers. Not being democratic, it scarcely bothered him that this alliance would be with National Socialist Germany, in which, moreover, he saw many virtues, above all the defense of the race. Today, universal miscegenation is not merely tolerated but promoted, so Céline’s obsession understandably seems scandalous. If the expression “politically incorrect” did not exist, surely it would have to be invented for Céline. “I am extremely racist,” he would write, incorrigible, in his post-war novels.
The titles of Céline’s satires are, as one knows, generally misinterpreted. But the words that accompanied Trifles for a Massacre — “For good laugh in the trenches” — made it quite clear which massacre it is. As for the cadavers in the Moliéresque title of the School, they are naturally the 100,000 French who died in the next war, quite forgotten today. Céline comments here on the political news from May to November 1938, denounces the machinations of the warmongers, sarcastically condemns the French politicians: Pétain (whom he names “Bedain” or “Prétartarin”), Daladier, Rocque, Mandel, Doriot, but also Anglo-American warmongers tied to capitalist “Jewry.” This book constitutes also a denunciation of French decadence accentuated by the ravages of alcohol that Doctor Destouches regarded with horror. Before being a writer, Céline was a hygienist with the League of Nations. Indeed, he remained one all his life.
In the Preface mentioned above, Céline recalls the extent to which to which this book was poorly received upon publication. And it is true that even the Right-wing press was to a man deeply shocked that Céline preached an alliance with the detested enemies beyond the Rhine. Coming to see the error of his ways a half-dozen years later, Robert Brasillach wrote: “Why won’t I acknowledge that I hardly understood this book when it appeared? I saw it as a republication of Trifles . . . The whole thing appeared useless to me, weighed down by excess of all kinds, of an excessive pessimism regarding my country. I was not the only one to think so. We were quite wrong. The School for Cadavers is only quite secondarily a pamphlet against the Jews. It is above all an astonishing book of a prophet, the day before the catastrophe, and a catastrophe is exactly what we needed to brutally reveal his accuracy.”
Who better to define this scathing polemic than the author himself? He described it, hardly excusing it, as the work of “an anti-Semite, racist, Collaborationist (before the word), anti-English, anti-Mason.” All reasons to pillory it today.
On the strictly literary level, this pamphlet is barely appreciated by the Célinians who defend its predecessor (Trifles for a Massacre) for its literary qualities and the aesthetic manifesto that it contains. The late professor Alphonse Juilland, eminent linguist at Stanford University (California), was delighted with the many neologisms and other linguistic inventions that strew it.
Yet in any case, Céline’s genius at invective is brilliantly deployed here. This brings us to the eternal dilemma between the moral and the aesthetic: can one admire a work that diffuses so many bad ideas [sic]? The Belgian writer Charles Plisnier, a Christian ex-Trotskyste, described Bagatelles as “a brilliant and wicked book.” In any case, these texts have made Céline the great pariah of contemporary literature. The only one, moreover, for whom one third of his works are kept under a bushel. Yet for all that, Céline does not escape the paradoxical fate of being despised by all right-thinking people and celebrated by all those with a passion for literature.
1. Céline is referring to Dr. Marcel Petiot, a mass-murderer who was executed in 1946. He is thought to have killed more than 60 people during the Second World War. His defense was that he was a member of the Résistance who was killing fascists. The defense would have worked, since in “free” France, fascists and collaborators had no rights and the Résistance was given license to kill. But the Doctor could not prove any Résistance affiliations, so he was executed—Trans.