In the Land of Pain
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
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.
Duchenne de Boulogne arriving at Lamalou one evening, looking out of his window the next morning, and seeing such an array of classic symptoms parading beneath him that he rushed into his host’s bedroom, waking him up, shouting, ‘They’re all ataxic. They belong to me. I’m going to question all of them, all of them.’ In La Doulou Daudet uses ataxie and ataxique (the latter as both adjective and noun) rather than the higher-medical tabès and tabétique; I have followed his usage. Tabes denotes the
them, reassuring the nervous ones, taking pains with the despairing, and giving them glimpses of some possible holding-off or drawing-back of their fate: ‘The doctors don’t know any more than we do; in fact they know even less, because their knowledge is made up of an average drawn from observations which are generally hasty and incomplete, and because every case is a new and particular one. You, Sir, have this symptom, and you over there have another. It would be necessary to join you both to
was caused by his illness or its treatment (or palliation), it was also unclear to many what had caused the condition. Given the time-gap between initial infection and tertiary neurosyphilis, the connection was for long not apparent. Duchenne de Boulogne is generally credited with first insisting on the causal link between syphilis and locomotor ataxia; Alfred Fournier confirmed it statistically, and began to teach that view from about 1880. But conventional medical opinion was conservative and
knife-grinder’s. Even so it’s the most convenient route, and the least painful for my feet: I have to keep walking.*4 — Coming back from the baths with X–––, who’s gone in the head. On the way I comfort him, I ‘rub him down’, just for the simple human pleasure of keeping myself warm. — ‘The illness of a neighbour is always a comfort and may even be a cure.’ A proverb from the Midi, the land of the sick. — ‘The ship has fouled’ is the nautical phrase. I need some such term to describe the
ribs, the eternally tightened belt, the rifts of pain, and I’ve lost for ever the taste for food. — Very strange, the fear that pain inspires nowadays – or rather, this pain of mine. It’s bearable, and yet I cannot bear it. It’s sheer dread: and my resort to anaesthetics is like a cry for help, the squeal of a woman before danger actually strikes. — The little house in the rue ––. I dream about it. For a long while I fight the temptation. Then I go. Immediate relief. Sweetness. The garden. A