Nat’s Uptown Books has been open for about a year and a half, offering an eclectic mix of used reads on weekends. The owner, Nathan Simar, runs a Facebook page for his loyal followers. A few days ago, he asked the group if anyone had any books by Celine that he could take off their hands.
Celine was a 20th-century French author and one of the most virulent anti-Semites of his day. On top of his novels, he published three infamous pamphlets calling Jews the enemies of France and advocating for their immediate removal. Even Nazis were a little leery of him because he accused Adolf Hitler of secretly being Jewish, merely because he wasn’t getting rid of French Jews fast enough for his liking.
A commenter reacted, appalled, but Simar basically shrugged. This wasn’t about anti-Semitism, he said. He liked Celine’s books. People didn’t have to read them if they didn’t want to.
A stream of comments accumulated. They asked Simar why he was using his page to promote a rabid anti-Semite. Simar’s responses were mostly nonchalant. He asked the commenters whether they’ve read Celine, and recommended that they should. He asked them if they listen to Wagner -- a famous and famously anti-Semitic composer -- and whether he should burn his Bill Cosby albums. He called the whole thing the result of “PC” mentality.
“He just seemed to double down and triple down,” says commenter Michelle Cohen.
Meanwhile, the commenters doubled down on their stance. They said Simar was being insensitive, even flippant, in his responses. Some wrote paragraphs on how this was hurtful to them and to others. Some kept it short and sweet: “WHAT. THE. FUCK. BRO.”
Simar says he was at work all day while the thread was going and stopped checking it. When he looked at it later that evening and saw how heated the discussion had gotten, he made a followup post. He said he was sorry if he instigated the incident, and if he contributed to and perpetuated a bad situation. He said people were welcome to stop by and chat, or just vent. Later, he deactivated the Facebook page altogether.
“Facebook is not a good forum for this -- it’s just not,” Simar says. He says he didn’t have time to write a paragraph-long defense of Celine’s good qualities while acknowledging his hatred of Jews. He was writing on his phone, which he says may be part of why he might have come off as flippant.
Still, he thinks the fault was on both sides. He’s a nice guy, he says, not a racist, and he didn’t mean to give any implication to the contrary.
“It was nastiness,” he says. “Other people should be embarrassed about what they said to me.”
This isn’t the first time Celine has been the subject of a debate about whether art can be separated from a creator’s vile ideologies. In 2011, France’s Culture Ministry planned a tribute to the author, which was later scrapped after the country’s leading Jewish organizations protested his celebration.
But there are people who love Celine. He’s referred to as a French Hemingway, eschewing pretension and the frills of the previous generation’s literature and championing a disillusioned, melancholy, “masculine” style.
“He was a typical early-20th-century guy,” says Tanith Broom of St. Paul, who had family members who didn’t survive the Holocaust. “You can read controversial literature without trying to double down and say the literature isn’t anti-Semitic.”
Broom thinks Simar should have acknowledged Celine’s rampant anti-Semitism, that he should have listened to the commenters’ concerns rather than try to debate or dismiss them.
“It’s absolutely tone deaf and insensitive to the people who are affected by those sorts of things."
In retrospect, Simar thinks maybe he should have given the page a disclaimer about the author. He does that all the time in person, he says -- warns customers about rape scenes or other upsetting passages in his recommendations. He says he’ll probably tread more lightly in the future.
But there are a few people from the thread who say it’s too late for them -- that they won’t be back to browse or perform on the bookshop’s stage.
“And it’s a shame,” Cohen says. “I really liked that store.”