The Life and Work of Semmelweiss: A Fictional Biography
Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) is best known for his early novels "Journey to the End of the Night" (1932)--which Charles Bukowski described as the greatest novel of the past 2,000 years--and "Death on the Installment Plan" (1936), but this delirious, fanatical "biography" predates them both. The astounding yet true story of the life of Ignacz Semmelweis provided Celine with a narrative whose appalling events and bizarre twists would have lain beyond credibility in a work of pure fiction. Semmelweis, now regarded as the father of antisepsis, was the first to diagnose correctly the cause of the staggering mortality rates in the lying-in hospital at Vienna. However, his colleagues rejected both his reasoning and his methods, thereby causing thousands of unnecessary deaths in maternity wards across Europe. This episode, one of the most infamous in the history of medicine, and its disastrous effects on Semmelweis himself, are the subject of Celine's semi-fictional evocation, one in which his violent descriptive genius is already apparent. The overriding theme of his later writing--a caustic despair verging on disgust for humanity--finds its first expression here, and yet he also reveals a more compassionate aspect to his character. "Semmelweis" was not published until 1936, after the novels that made Celine famous. "It is not every day we get a thesis such as Celine wrote on Semmelweis!" wrote Henry Miller of this volume.