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Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Semmelweis.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Semmelweis. Trans. John Harman. Intro. Philippe Sollers. Atlas Press, 2008. 110 pp. Paper: 10.00 [pounds sterling].

The early work of a renowned author is typically a literary curiosity, the province of the completist or academic. Semmelweis, novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine's 1924 fictionalized biography of controversial Vienna obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis, is certainly a curiosity: a medical thesis (Celine was a hygienist) that reads alternately like fiction, prose poetry, and modernist screed. But this compact volume stands on its own, even for readers unfamiliar with Journey to the End of Night or Death on the Installment Plan. Semmelweis, who practiced medicine in the mid-nineteenth century, was foolish enough to argue for what today is a medical truism: one should wash one's hands before delivering a baby. Even after hard evidence that such cleansing reduced mothers' mortality rates, Semmelweis was ostracized and eventually run out of Austria for a practice determined to be too much trouble by conventional medical wisdom. Celine's portrayal has the taut suspense of a mystery, but the core of his narrative is anything but; Semmelweis is ultimately emblematic of John Stuart Mill's scathing assessment of human nature, which serves as the epigraph for one of Celine's chapters: "If it were discovered that the truths of geometry might annoy men, they would have been declared false a long time ago." The doctor's tragic life and career result from his desire to help others, an irony that the author seems to relish with equal parts mirth and disdain. Eventually known as much for his anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration as for his fiction, Celine at the very least is an unlikely moralist. But Semmelweis finds the young author diagnosing the human condition with a lucidity that is as undeniable as it is unsettling.
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Author:Ponce, Pedro
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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