Writer's essay on Breivik killings provokes outrage

Fri, Aug 31, 2012, 01:00

A French author has caused outrage by calling the mass killings ‘what Norway deserved’

CAN ANDERS Breivik’s murders be viewed as an aesthetic gesture? Did Norway have it coming? And should an accomplished editor lose his job at one of France’s most famous publishing houses because of his personal views?

These are the questions exercising intellectual circles in Paris this week after Richard Millet of the publisher Gallimard argued in a new book that the killings were “without doubt what Norway deserved”.

In the short essay, Éloge Littéraire d’Anders Breivik (Literary Elegy of Anders Breivik), Millet stresses that he does not approve of Breivik’s actions on July 22nd last year, which left 77 people dead and resulted in a 21-year prison sentence. In interviews, Millet has called Breivik a “monster”.

Framing the mass killings as a response to decades of immigration and multiculturalism in Norway, however, Millet describes Breivik’s actions as “formal perfection ... in their literary dimension” and portrays him as the natural outcome of a wave of European despair over loss of national and cultural identity. The killer was “an exemplary product of western decadence”, a child of “the ideological-racial fracture that extra-European immigration has introduced in Europe”, he writes.

“Within this decadence, Breivik is without doubt what Norway deserved, and what awaits our societies that won’t stop blinding themselves in denial,” he argues. “European nations are dissolving socially at the same time as they’re losing their Christian essence in favour of general relativism.”

The book has caused an uproar. Millet, a well-regarded publisher and the author of dozens of books, is a well-known figure in literary Paris. At Gallimard, he has edited award-winning titles, including Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) by Jonathan Littell, which won the Goncourt prize in 2006 and dominated bestseller lists.

In a review of Millet’s essay, along with another recent work of his, De l’Antiracisme Comme Terreur Littéraire (Antiracism as Literary Terror), Le Monde said it reflected a conservative stance the author had long held. “The man hates a lot, in a refined style that is sometimes obscure,” the paper said. “It’s sufficiently clear, however, for the objects of his malice to distinctly appear: social democracy (and democracy, full stop), extra-European immigration, the remainders of Marxism and their supposed corollaries of ignorance, political correctness and the weakening of language. All of that is leading to the crumbling of Europe – a decomposing continent where ‘a civil war is under way’.”

Some of the loudest denunciations of Millet have come from Gallimardauthors. Tahar Ben Jelloun, the Moroccan writer and winner of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, said: “He is losing his mind.”

Although Gallimard has no involvement with Millet’s essays, the publisher has come under pressure to sack him. Ben Jelloun called Millet’s pamphlet a “ridiculous, useless and, above all, disgusting provocation” and said his employer “had to realise” that it must end its association with Millet. Alexis Jenni, a recent Goncourt winner who is edited by Millet, said the publisher’s “debatable ideas” did not detract from his qualities as a writer. “It’s the same problem as with [Louis Ferdinand] Céline,” Jenni said. When France marked 50 years since Céline’s death last year, it stirred intense debate over how to reconcile the imaginative work of the celebrated novelist with his virulent anti-Semitism.

Amid the outrage, there were some voices calling for calm. “Seeing an aesthetic gesture in the massacre of 77 young Norwegians is clearly shocking, obscene,” said the writer Pierre Assouline, but he warned against turning Millet into a martyr. “[He] is provocative, but he must not be reduced to that. He has a literary project, with a global idea of decadence, of the loss of national identity.” Millet stands over his words. In the news magazine L’Express yesterday, he said the reference to “formal perfection” was a “technical observation, not a value judgment”.

“Obviously I reject the accusations of racism that have been made against me. I like races, peoples, borders, the diversity of the world. However, I don’t believe massive immigration of people who are distant from us, culturally and religiously, is viable. But simply saying that is to expose yourself to attacks.”