Eulogy for 'aesthetic' racist killer roils world of French letters

The French literary establishment is in a state of ferment with well-known authors either penning vitriolic diatribes against or taking up cudgels in defence of this year’s uncontested literary black sheep, Richard Millet, a senior and hitherto respected editor at the prestigious publishing house, Gallimard.

In three literary pamphlets contained in two books attacking immigration and multiculturalism, called A Phantom Language and A Literary Eulogy for Anders Breivik, Mr. Millet described the Norwegian killer’s acts as “aesthetic, formal perfection in their literary dimension” and said the killings were “without a doubt what Norway deserves.”

He backed up his declarations by arguing that Norway, had allowed immigration, multiculturalism and foreign customs, languages and religions to so dominate the national landscape that a man like Breivik had felt compelled to take corrective action. Mr. Millet makes it clear that he finds Mr. Breivik’s actions abhorrent but says he is fascinated by the “perfection and precision” of his acts.

The author of some 30 texts, mainly literary essays and novels, Millet is a formidable, brooding presence in the world of French letters and is often referred to as the “maker of Goncourts” — France’s most prestigious literary prize, comparable to the British Booker. Indeed, Millet was the editor of two recent Goncourt winners — Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), 2006, by the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell and Alexis Jenni’s 2011 triumph , L’Art français de la guerre (The French Art of Making War).

But now his own authors are turning against him and there has been a fine rumpus in the media with figures like Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, literally slamming him.

“In the name of what freedom of expression, towards what end or what profit does a person in full possession of his faculties (or so one supposes) choose to write a text so repugnant? This question leads to another: in the name of what philosophy, or what political position, what prospect of profit does a publisher decide to publish an apology for one of the greatest criminals of this century while trampling over the sentiments of the victims and their parents?” writes Le Clézio in a signed editorial in the left wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “The question concerns not just Breivik but also Mr. Millet. More generally, it concerns a certain corruption of contemporary thought and the responsibility of writers in the propagation of racism and xenophobia,” writes Le Clézio.

Antoine Gallimard, the owner and Director of Gallimard, said he was shocked by Millet’s positions. However, he said he was not Mr. Millet’s publisher and could not censure his Literary Editor’s writings.

Alexis Jenni who won the Goncourt last year thanks, in part, to the deft editing of Mr. Millet also defended his literary mentor. “He is still my editor. I don’t want to take any public position on the subject. Millet believes only in literature. He is someone who writes marvellously well. His questionable ideas do not reduce his literary qualities,” he argued.

Other writers including Goncourt and Nobel winners savagely attacked Mr. Millet. Morrocan Tahar Ben Jelloun said simply: “He has gone mad…,” while Bernard-Henri Lévy described Millet as someone who, after 30 years of mediocrity, had “finally found his Warholien quarter of an hour in which to bask.”

Le Clézio who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, dismisses Mr. Millet, with a wave of his pen, suggesting that Mr. Millet is haunted by France’s eternal fascination with Louis Ferdinand Celine, a provocative, powerful and inventive author but truly anti-Semite for all that. “If Celine was a genius and a provocateur, is it enough to be provocative to be a genius? Mr. Millet is motivated only by a taste for scandal and submits to the pathology of the insignificant. The seductive power of the ignoble is insidious…there is no need to read Mr. Millet’s lugubrious text to understand that.”

Millet’s aggressive defence

Unrepentant, Millet has put up a ferocious defence. “Is it normal that on any given day mine should be the only white face on a station platform?” he asked while discussing the ills of immigration in an interview further fuelling the debate.

L’affaire Millet does not look like it is going to go away any time soon. In an essay entitled “The Dishonour of Literature”, Annie Ernaux, one of Gallimard’s most important writers says she read La langue Fantome (A Phantom Language) and Éloge Littéraire d'Anders Breivik “with a mixture of anger, disgust and alarm.”

Her feelings, she said, were caused by the fact that she was reading pages that “perspired hate” and disdain for humanity and which were an apology for violence under cover of “examining, through the sole prism of “literary beauty” the “acts” of one who coldly killed 77 persons.…”

In the essay to be published on Tuesday by Le Monde (of which The Hindu has obtained an advance copy), Ms Ernaux says she shall not be silenced by arguments like freedom of expression or that discussing the pamphlets gives the author celebrity and a certain legitimacy. “I shall not keep quiet on the grounds that talking about this gives the author the halo of literary martyrdom. … Richard Millet is no madman. Each phrase, each word is written with full knowledge of the possible consequences. To keep quiet about a text that is dangerous for social cohesion is to risk losing respect for oneself further down the line …This is a fascist pamphlet that dishonours literature,” she says.

France has of course had a long tradition of anti-Semite writing, through the 1870s to just before the Second World War and later, with writers like Drumont, the Goncourt Brothers and the celebrated Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose 1932 book Journey to the End of the Night (for which he was denied the Goncourt) remains on the required reading list because of the power and beauty of its language. It is surprising that the French continue to retain the Prix Goncourt established by a pair of anti-Semite writer brothers as its most prestigious literary prize. That anti-Semite tradition is now slowly turning into xenophobia and Islamophobia.

“While it is true that no self conscious, systematic post-War purge of the language took place in France, like it did in Germany with the Group of 47, it is also true that the number of anti-Semite writings have been reduced to a trickle. In France, the Republic of Letters cannot and must not be confused with the French Republic. Laicity, equality and social justice are the tenets of the French Republic. The Republic of Letters admits political incorrectness because it defends freedom of expression. There are writers here who passionately believe in the freedom to write, howsoever odious or objectionable the content. Others feel it is the writer’s duty to discuss issues like misery, injustice and to denounce xenophobia or racism. Personally, I believe that writers cannot go against existing laws and incite racial hatred. That is what happened in the case of Renaud Camus, a diarist we published when I was Vice President of Fayard. The book was withdrawn because it was racist and anti-Semite and clearly infringed the law,” Olivier Bétourné, president of the prestigious French publishing house Le Seuil told The Hindu.

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