Semmelweis — Reviews

The Times Literary Supplement, 19.6.2009 (this is a long review of three titles so the sections immediately relevant to Semmelweis are put in blue)


Karl Orend

Louis-Ferdinand Céline Normance Translated by Marlon Jones 328pp. Dalkey Archive. Paperback, $10.99. 978 1 56478 525 1

Conversations with Professor Y Translated by Stanford Luce 156pp. Dalkey Archive. Paperback, $10.99. 978 1 56478 449 5.

Semmelweis Translated by John Harman 110pp. Atlas Press. Paperback, $10. 978 1 900565 47 9

On June 17, 1944, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Dr Destouches, left his apartment at 4 rue Girardon, Montmartre, with his young wife Lucette and their cat Bébert, en route for Denmark, where they hoped to find refuge. For months, Céline, who assumed the identity of a Québécois travelling salesman, had hardly set foot in the streets after dark for fear of assassination. Miniature coffins were arriving in the post. His address had been broadcast on Radio Brazzaville. Execution was encouraged. He carried a gun and two vials of cyanide.

In 1939, Samuel Beckett had told Peggy Guggenheim that Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) was the best novel in French or English literature. Embarrassed by his candour (and her shocked reaction), Beckett was quick to backtrack. The novel, written by a doctor in the Clichy municipal dispensary, a veteran of the First World War decorated with the Médaille Militaire, with many literary achievements, revolutionized French literature by its language and narrative structure. Its effect on American literature was immediate. Henry Miller, who was promoted in the mid-1930s as “the American Céline”, rewrote Tropic of Cancer (1934) in the light of his new discovery.

Mort à crédit, published in 1936, established Céline as a major author, praised by critics for his nightmare vision and for his genius. That same year he brought out Semmelweis, the work he had submitted as his medical thesis in 1924. It tells the story of Ignatz Semmelweis, the father of antisepsis, who was hounded to madness for claiming that it was the doctors who were causing high mortality rates in maternity wards by infecting their patients. (It was not uncommon to go straight from dissecting a corpse to deliver a baby.) Rather than being a scientific tract, Semmelweis is a work of historical fiction and it is an essential document for understanding Céline’s development as a writer. In the case of a doctor, reviled, driven to penury and imprisoned for telling truths that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Céline saw a profound echo of his own tragic situation.

The long journey of Céline, Lucette and Bébert to Denmark; their stay among collaborationist exiles at Sigmaringen; the bombing raids they experienced, are recounted in the trilogy; Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon. Céline was fleeing Paris as an anti-Semitic collaborator as a result of his three controversial “pamphlets”, Bagatelles pour une massacre (1937), École des cadavres (1938) and Les Beaux Draps (1941), polemical works which he wrote as a warning so that more bloody slaughter might be averted. Céline had been traumatized by his experience of combat as a result of which he was classed 75 per cent disabled and left with a constant roaring in his ears after a head wound.

He convinced himself that a Jewish conspiracy lay behind the impending conflict with Germany, favouring a Franco-German alliance to ensure stability in Europe. Those beliefs were shared by millions. Bagatelles pour une massacre (which André Gide saw as an exercice de style) came out at around the same time as Wyndham Lewis’s The Jews: Are They Human? (1939), and Samuel Roth’s Jews Must Live: An account of the persecution of the world by Israel (1943). Gertrude Stein canvassed support for Hitler as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize of 1938.

The savage épuration of the 1940s unleashed a decade of self-laceration in France, rewriting of history and settling of scores. Céline’s publisher, Robert Denoël, was assassinated in December 1945, and the author was sentenced to eighteen months in protective custody in Denmark while deportation was being considered. Unlike Ezra Pound or Knut Hamsun, Céline had made too many enemies among the elite and among Communists (especially with Mea Culpa, 1936) for him to be allowed to lie low in a mental asylum. Sartre lied that Céline was being paid by the Nazis, and to save his own skin, his “brother”, the painter Gen Paul, lied saying that Céline had denounced Jews to the Gestapo.

(It was only a matter of time, Celine joked, before someone claimed he had been Hitler’s mistress.) Céline began Fable for Another Time (Féerie pour une autre fois, 1954), writing in pencil on scraps of paper, in solitary confinement with a death sentence hanging over him. It was originally intended as the first part of a trilogy, but this was abandoned and only the second volume, Normance, was completed. Critics have dismissed the books as evidence of an impending mental collapse, even psychosis, or at best “a pretentious bore”. This is to misunderstand his method and forget his genius. Céline believed that the role of “écrivain” had been desecrated and he would now be a “chroniqueur”. Taking on this lesser status was an attempt to undermine his debasement and it linked the twentieth century with the Middle Ages, Crusades, the Black Death, public executions and torture.

Conversations with Professor Y (Entretien avec le professeur Y, 1955) , a modern classic of irony and burlesque, was written to explain his contribution to literature and the path that led to the unpopular Fable for Another Time. A satire on critics, academics and publishers (“half pimp, half grocer”), as well as an attack on the venality and wilful blindness of modern man, drugged on propaganda, radio and television, it is an updating of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, coloured by Céline’s relationship with the American academic, Milton Hindus, who corresponded with him from 1947-9, only to tear him apart in The Crippled Giant (1950).

Céline believed that Rabelais failed to democratize language. Jacques Amyot, the sixteenth-century translator of Plutarch, had become the model for literary French, and as a result the written language was dead. Céline was not in fact an innovator in his use of argot – François Villon and Aristide Bruant were predecessors – his contribution was a revitalization of the French language, stressing its interior music, brutal vulgarity and dark comedy, welding Edouard Dujardin’s interior monologue to the violence, hypocrisy and death spirit of the modern age, without the intellectualism of Joyce. In Céline’s writing punctuation becomes musical notation, steps in an apocalyptic dance of death, which reaches its apotheosis in Normance.

In Conversations with Professor Y Céline claimed his “small contribution” had been to transpose the emotion of spoken language into literary French. He sends the reader roaring through an “emotive subway”, giving the impression of immediacy and a voice inside the head. “In the beginning was not the Word, but emotion.” By the time of Fable for Another Time and Normance he had seen too much hell to stop there. These books were deliberately unreadable in the conventional sense. He imagined his reader would react with disgust after only a few pages. At its most savage, his prose is a direct assault on his audience and on the official version of history, Judaeo-Christian philosophy, the novel and autobiography.

Céline’s letters and drafts show he was in control of his medium. While there is a connection between his life and his imaginary world, Fable for Another Time is the work of a literary genius, not a desperate paranoiac, and Normance is a considered attack on both Finnegans Wake and Ulysses. The schizophrenia of society and man is horrifyingly palpable as Céline transmogrifies his own suffering, adorning history with his legend and fantasies. If his were books “for another time”, it was because he knew that it would be a century or more before they could be judged objectively.

Proud, stubborn, a workaholic, Céline produced 80,000 handwritten pages from which to cull a first draft. He rewrote Fable many times, enriching as he went. He spoke of torturing the paper with his nib. His style was somewhere between music and poetry. Believing that the documentary and psychological functions of the novel were exhausted, he became a composer, a “musicien du français”.

Transparency, which he compared to his mother’s lacemaking, was his goal. He sought to orchestrate a song of pain and horror from the internal rhythm of language by a “tension transposée musicale extrême”. Not one syllable, one comma, was left to chance. Writing was like slashing a path through the tropical rain-forest, which closed behind as the explorer advanced. “I could shit out three conventional novels a year if I wished.” Céline suffered from crippling anxiety, depression and a view of the world tainted by an emotionally starved childhood and a working life surrounded by the poor, sick and dying. He lived, with fearful courage, from day to day, often unable to anticipate the results of his actions, constantly placing himself in danger. The pen was his sword, hatred his shield. Forced exile and imprisonment focused his sense of human cruelty and language was his passionate refuge.

Dedicated to the defenceless “animals, sick and imprisoned”, Fable was written out of “horror and disgust” at the eternal cycle of “bread and torture”. Recounting the story of his incarceration and the prelude to flight, saturated with “blood, music and lace”, it confuses time and space, blurring reality and fantasy in a whirlwind of dark comedy and violent imagery. Noise, cries and voices, assault the reader; dark imaginings leave us reeling in a miasma of suffering and conflicted history. The boundaries between the intimate and the public are sundered.

Céline describes his weeping anal sores, bleeding from the eyes, boiling enemas, his apartment confiscated, manuscripts thrown in the rubbish by looters, his mother dying alone on a bench in the street. He even imagines the reader suffering from terminal rectal cancer. He does not seek to elicit pity or assume madness for the sake of leniency, but destabilizes all social and linguistic norms to inflict the literary equivalent of the horror he has witnessed. He is singing a modern chanson de geste, not the truth, neither his nor that of his enemies; yet his “fable” has as much validity as our historical reality. The two novels, Fable and Normance are densely allusive and brilliantly inventive – stylistic tours de force inspired by Breughel and Bosch. Two panels of an unfinished triptych, they should not be read as a linear narrative .

Normance recounts the story of an episode airbrushed from memory: the bombing of Montmartre by the RAF in April 1944. As in Ulysses, the action takes place during a single day and the entire book is given over to evoking the terror felt by civilians under heavy bombing. Dedicated to Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius that covered Pompeii, Normance, like Fable, is full of cultural, historic, literary and musical allusions, from Shakespeare, La Fontaine and Pascal to Gounod, Offenbach, Charpentier and Puccini. Céline intended these works as an “opérette macabre”, linked to the medieval danse macabre. It is stylistically his most challenging work, an affront to the very foundations of our civilization and the lies we tell ourselves in order to live.

The influence of Céline has been profound on writers such as Günter Grass, Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and William T. Vollmann. He is the most important French writer of the twentieth century. The danger to his reputation will come when his pamphlets leave copyright protection. His anti-Semitism will be used to denigrate his contribution to literature, just as the Deux Siècles ensemble was used to undermine Solzhenitsyn. There are regular attacks on Céline in French, in works such as André Rossel-Kirschen’s Céline et le grand mensonge (2004).

The attacks have to be personal, because his writing gift was incomparable. Pound said that Céline’s greatest sin was that he saw too clearly. He, like Sade, held up a mirror to all that was base and ignoble. When he said that no matter how fast the terrified civilians ran fleeing the advancing Wehrmacht they could never catch up with the retreating French army, he scandalized a nation that had to live a lie to assuage its conscience. He became a scapegoat for France. Following an amnesty, he lived tending his patients in Meudon, until his death in 1961; dressed like a tramp, surrounded by barbed wire, with his dogs and parrot, he paraded his abjection for journalists, in penitence for his own vile words and his country’s shame.

The humane side of Céline is ignored. He cared for the poor and sick. He loved animals and children and wept easily. He was devoted to those who were loyal to him. Music and dance were his passion. Like Nietzsche he could not believe in a deity that does not dance. Ballerinas were the flickering lights – the inexhaustible fount of beauty that guided him through the night of our dark world. Early drafts of Fable have great tenderness; he describes massaging Bébert’s frozen paw, keeping the cat hidden next to his heart so that starving civilians did not eat him; and recalls his blind mother feeling her way through the war-torn streets .

His true achievement is lost in translation because it is so closely tied to the French language. Céline, who read widely in English and loved Shakespeare, had little time for “trouducuteurs”. His identification of them with assholes was born of the immutability and perfection of his style. Anglophone readers did not understand that he was not simply using the vernacular of the streets and breaking taboos, as Henry Miller (“my unfortunate plagiarist”) did, but that he was reinventing and revitalizing a whole language and culture through his style (“The equivalent does not exist in American or English.

They have not even dreamed of it”). Ralph Mannheim’s versions have largely superseded the bowdlerized and inadequate translations of Céline’s early books. In the more recent reissues, Mary Hudson (who translated Fable for Another Time in 2003 for the University of Nebraska Press) and now Marlon Jones have fought heroically, if not quixotically, to capture the impact of the originals.

Both books would have benefited from more comprehensive introductions and footnotes. Stanford Luce’s version of Conversations with Professor Y offers a bilingual text, but the translation and notes, dating from 1986, badly need revision. 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.

The Complete Review website, 17.2.2005.

Semmelweis by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

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.

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.