It is 55 years since Dr Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches â€“ better known as the writer CÃ©line â€“ died. For more than five decades French historians, intellectuals and politicians, among others, have struggled â€“ and failed â€“ to agree on his legacy.
To some, the author who influenced writers such as Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski is one of the greatest of Franceâ€™s literary giants. Others revile CÃ©line as an unrepentant Nazi sympathiser and antisemite who called for the extermination of French Jews.
Now a new film is scratching the national sore that, half a century on, refuses to heal. The movie, Louis-Ferdinand CÃ©line: Two Clowns for a Catastrophe is based on the real-life meeting in 1948 between the author and Milton Hindus, a young American literature professor, in Denmark, where the Frenchman was in self-imposed exile (he was later convicted of collaboration in his absence by a Paris court and sentenced to a year in jail).
Hindus, who was Jewish, would later write of his shock and disappointment at the meeting and seeing a novelist he admired â€œdrooling out of both sides of his mouthâ€. He had been invited to stay with CÃ©line for two months, but left after three weeks.
The filmâ€™s release comes just five years after Franceâ€™s culture ministry was forced to scrap a tribute to CÃ©line following outrage from the countryâ€™s leading Jewish organisations. The writerâ€™s name was scratched from the list of 500 French cultural figures to be honoured that year because of his antisemitic writings.
Director Emmanuel Bourdieu, son of the late Pierre Bourdieu, one of Franceâ€™s most influential postwar sociologists, said his aim in the film was to show the paradox of literary genius and monster in one man. â€œThis coexistence is what fascinates and disturbs and causes problems for us,â€ said Bourdieu. â€œWe have his singularity as a writer who completely revolutionised the novel at the time and did so alone, a simple doctor who invented his thing.
â€œAt the same time he fell into this strange violence and extremism. Contrary to his genius, he became ordinary, trivial, vulgar â€¦ his antisemitism, his racism, all those reactionary and extreme thoughts invaded him.â€
CÃ©line, who later trained as an obstetrician, won a medal for bravery during the first world war at Ypres, where he was shot in the arm delivering a vital message. He was hailed as one of Franceâ€™s literary giants following publication of his first novel and best-known work, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) in 1932.
The workâ€™s style, rhythms, use of slang and colloquial language challenged traditional literary conventions and became one of the most acclaimed French novels of the 20th century. If the writing style was iconoclastic, and the bookâ€™s antihero Bardamu a nihilist, the misanthropic writer went even further. CÃ©line produced three virulently antisemitic pamphlets between 1937 and 1941 so extreme that even the occupying German generals found them hard to stomach, dismissing them as â€œsavage, filthy slangâ€.
Philip Roth, who once declared â€œCÃ©line is my Proust!â€, summed up the ambivalence still felt towards the author, whom he still felt deserved recognition for his writing, when he said: â€œEven if his antisemitism made him an abject, intolerable person â€“ to read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it because antisemitism isnâ€™t at the heart of his books.â€
Will Self also praised CÃ©lineâ€™s work as an â€œinvective, which â€“ despite the reputation he would later earn as a rabid antisemite â€“ is aimed against all classes and races of people with indiscriminate abandonâ€. In France, however, CÃ©line polarises, leading readers to declare him either a literary maestro or racist monster, but rarely both. Even after his return to France in 1951, when he was spared prison, he never publicly recanted his racist views.
It has made him symbolic of a continuing struggle to accept and digest the prevalence of widespread antisemitism in France before and during the second world war, and its resurgence in recent years. The July 1942 round-up of 13,000 French Jews by French police at the VÃ©lÂ dâ€™Hiv cycle track, from where many were dispatched to Nazi death camps never to return, still haunts the French consciousness.
As the â€œman-or-monster?â€ debate raged again in France last week, film-maker Bourdieu added he wanted to show that these forms of â€œintolerance, xenophobia and currents that ran against the rational and humanistâ€ were still a threat. â€œThey are deeply anchored in our culture, our subconscious, our religion. And they can get the upper hand because itâ€™s a very strong current of thought and confronted with it reason canâ€™t do much. Because itâ€™s discourse that refuses dialogue,â€ said Bourdieu.
â€œI hope the film shows this monster and shows how it threatens us all in a way â€¦ even the most singular and extraordinary among us. We see even someone like CÃ©line can be seduced by this.â€
Inevitably some of CÃ©lineâ€™s greatest supporters have emerged from Franceâ€™s far right. The website EgalitÃ© et Reconciliation, run by Alain Soral, a former member of the Front National, accused Bourdieu of â€œassassinatingâ€ CÃ©line. It said Bourdieu and leading lady GÃ©raldine Pailhas, who plays CÃ©lineâ€™s wife, Lucette Almenzor, were part of a â€œchampagne socialistâ€ set who control French cinema and members of a â€œband of leftwing intellectuals â€¦ a tribe whose members can be found in almost all CÃ©sar-winning films. They are trophy collectors.â€â€œA half century after the disappearance of the biggest French writer ever, itâ€™s not useful, that a film realised by the son of a self-righteous thinker… should reduce CÃ©line to his antisemitism,â€ it said.
Since CÃ©lineâ€™s death in 1961, his widow Lucette has refused to allow the antisemitic pamphlets to be reproduced in France. Now 103 years old, she still lives at the family home in Meudon, where CÃ©line is buried.