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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical


Louis-Ferdinand Céline

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To purchase Semmelweis

Title: Semmelweis
Author: Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Genre: Biographical
Written: 1924 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 107 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Semmelweis - US
Semmelweis - UK
Semmelweis - Canada
Semmelweis - Canada (French)
Semmelweiss - India
Semmelweis - France
Leben und Werk des Philipp Ignaz Semmelweis - Deutschland
Il dottor Semmelweis - Italia
Semmelweis - España
  • French title: Semmelweis
  • Translated by John Harman
  • With an Introduction by Philippe Sollers

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Our Assessment:

A- : odd, impressive little text

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 19/6/2009 Karl Orend

  From the Reviews:
  • "Elegantly produced, in a fine translation, incorporating Céline’s 1936 corrections and an illuminating introduction by Philippe Sollers, John Harman’s version of Semmelweis is essential reading for anyone interested in Céline. The most accessible of his books, it should be required reading for feminists and for everyone in the medical profession." - Karl Orend, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a medical doctor, and he wrote this, his dissertation, on Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865), the doctor best known for making the connection between puerperal ('childbed') fever and (un)sanitary practices of the day, realizing that proper antiseptic procedures could drastically reduce the incidence of infection.
       Céline notes that Semmelweis' own unlikely (and decidedly un-medical) doctoral thesis, Tractatus de vita plantarum ('On the Life of Plants') is a mere: "twelve pages of dense poesy, and rustic imagery [.....] an excuse to celebrate the characteristics of the rhododendron, the Easter daisy, the peony". Céline's Semmelweis isn't that much longer, and while at least its subject-matter is closer to the medical, also seems an unlikely dissertation-work for a doctor. Publisher Atlas print: "File under: Fiction" on the back cover -- presumably because potential readers are more likely to pick it up if they find it shelved besides Céline's other work than if looking for a Semmelweis-biography, but there's no question that it also reads more like a 'creative' work than what we now expect from biography (and, especially, any sort of academic dissertation).
       Semmelweis is, ostensibly, factual, but Céline-the-author is certainly already at work here: describing the world Semmelweis was born into, he writes:

Humanity was getting bored, it burned a few Gods, changed its costume and paid off History with a few new glories.
       Grand pronouncements come easily to him:
     In the Story of time, life is nothing but a delirium, the Truth is Death.
       In his Preface to a later (1936) edition of the work he introduces it as: "the terrible story of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis", and it is easy to see how he -- like many others after him (see also, for example, Jens Bjørneboe's play, Semmelweis) -- was attracted to this dreadful human fate: a brilliant but intemperate young doctor who has a brilliant insight; a powerful, crushing old guard that refuses to admit the obvious (and fights against it with everything at its disposal), senseless deaths continuing, -- and, finally, the hero's descent into complete madness (culminating in tragic, apposite deaths).
       Céline is well aware of how little science there was to medicine yet when Semmelweis studied it:
     As for medicine, in this Universe, it is nothing but a sentiment, a regret, a compassion more active than others, and virtually ineffective in those days when Semmelweis was coming to grips with it.
       The descriptions of the wards Semmelweis came to work in are horrible -- Céline not needing to go into any sort of detail, but just conveying the general impression (and dread), and the awful statistics (which, at least, seem to have been carefully recorded).
       Most shocking, of course, is that the evidence Semmelweis offered, and the experiments he wanted to pursue in order to ascertain cause and effect, were thoughtlessly and scornfully rejected -- Céline putting it beautifully-awfully (in John Harman's consistently fine translation):
     They preferred, out of a bizarre touchiness, to remain in their purulent stupidity, and continue their game of gambling with death.
       Oh, yes, Céline might have been writing his doctoral dissertation here, a step necessary for him to pursue a medical career, but clearly there's already a completely different kind of writer longing to get out.
       Semmelweis was a complicated -- and understandably frustrated -- man; comparing him to one of his (more successful) mentors, Céline suggests:
Škoda knew how to handle men. Semmelweis wanted to shatter them. An impossibility. He wanted to thrust himself through every stubborn door, he injured himself cruelly. Those doors would not open until after his death.
       Semmelweis' story, no matter how it is related, is a fascinating one. It's also great material for an author like Céline, himself always combative and often frustrated by the establishment and status quo, and he does not disappoint with his treatment. Semmelweis is a gripping, moving, appalling read. Some of the historical detail can be debated, but the thrust of Céline's argument, and the power of his writing are undeniable.
       Well worth seeking out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 February 2015

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Semmelweis: Reviews: Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Other books by Louis-Ferdinand Céline under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) was one of the leading as well as most notorious French authors of the 20th century.

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