In the Land of Pain
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As Julian Barnes writes in the introduction to his superb translation of Alphonse Daudet’s La Doulou, the mostly forgotten writer nowadays “ate at the top literary table” during his lifetime (1840–1897). Henry James described him as “the happiest novelist” and “the most charming story-teller” of his day. Yet if Daudet dined in the highest company, he was also “a member of a less enviable nineteenth-century French club: that of literary syphilitics.” In the Land of Pain—notes toward a book never written—is his timelessly resonant response to the disease.
In quick, sharp, unflinching strokes of his pen, Daudet wrote about his symptoms (“This is me: the one-man-band of pain”) and his treatments (“Mor-phine nights . . . thick black waves, sleepless on the surface of life, the void beneath”); about his fears and reflections (“Pain, you must be everything for me. Let me find in you all those foreign lands you will not let me visit. Be my philosophy, be my science”); his impressions of the patients, himself included, and their strange life at curative baths and spas (“Russians, both men and women, go into the baths naked . . . Alarm among the Southerners”); and about the “clever way in which death cuts us down, but makes it look like just a thinning-out.”
Given Barnes’s crystalline translation, these notes comprise a record—at once shattering and lighthearted, haunting and beguiling—of both the banal and the transformative experience of physical suffering, and a testament to the complex resiliency of the human spirit.
1889). ‘I’m trying to reduce my intake of morphine to one injection a day. It makes me jumpy, irritable and spiteful, yes spiteful to my wife and children.’ (Goncourt, 10 October 1889) *43 His father-in-law, Jules Allard (died 9 March 1889). *44 Newspapers had speculated that William II, on an official visit to Venice in April 1896, would receive the writer. *45 Mme Daudet complained that whenever Daudet read Montaigne, he ceased to be the Daudet she knew; ceased to be the loving husband and
Lucien Daudet’s death in 1946. The text was certainly edited before first publication; how much was cut or rearranged is impossible to guess. *9 Daudet was so myopic that he once talked for a quarter of an hour to a rug thrown over a chair, in the belief that it was Edmond de Goncourt. He would have imagined the voyage well. ‘This evening Daudet talked passionately about the sea. He said that he didn’t experience its magic through those colours which painters apprehend, but, thanks to an
might well prevent Daudet from writing anything thereafter. Such reasoning was either genuine or exceedingly clever. There is no evidence that Daudet ever started serious work on his book about Pain. But he continued taking notes, talked about the project, and even answered journalists’ questions about its progress (this not long before his death). One thing he always knew was what he was going to call it: La Doulou, the Provençal word for douleur, pain. Goncourt thought the title ‘abominable’,
others are less constantly aware of its presence; still others have an active and effective second Me, yet an unworthy or tedious first one. Graham Greene’s line about the writer needing a chip of ice in the heart is true; but if there’s too much ice, or the chip cools down the heart, the second Me has nothing – or nothing interesting – to observe. Daudet had the cold eye and the warm, suffering heart. He also had a sense of the ordinary. What happens around illness may be dramatic, even heroic;
in pain. — The great Flaubert, what a struggle it was for him to find the right words. Surely it must have been the enormous quantity of bromide he ingested that made the dictionary rebel against him? — I suggested a thesis topic to my son: Pascal’s neurosis.*40 One evening, about eleven, when the house was asleep and the lights were out, a knock at the door. ‘It’s me.’ X––– comes in for a minute, sits down and stays two hours. Fascinating confession about the suicidal impulse which