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.
fault and proposed, given his physical deterioration, that they fight at Champrosay while sitting on chairs. Eventually he signed a declaration that Drumont’s father had been the sanest man that ever lived, and the matter went no further. Drumont and Meyer were later reconciled, after Meyer declared himself anti-Dreyfusard. La France juive sold shamefully well: 100,000 copies in its first year, 200 editions by 1912. This pernicious tract was also republished in 1943, as the French were supplying
his first dose of the pox’. And when Maupassant started treatment for syphilis in 1877, he was exultant: ‘My hair is beginning to grow again and the hair on my arse is sprouting. I’ve got the pox! At last! Not the contemptible clap…no, no, the great pox, the one François I died of. The majestic pox…and I’m proud of it, by thunder. I don’t have to worry about catching it any more, and I screw the street whores and trollops, and afterwards say to them, “I’ve got the pox.” ’ Maupassant subsequently
— Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him. Everyone will get used to it except me. — Conversations with Charcot. For a long time I refused to talk to him: I was scared of the exchange we would have. Knowing what he’d say to me. I told him, ‘I’ve been saving you up for last.’ A fine mind which has no disdain for a writer. His style of observation: many analogies with my own, I think. — A good tête-à-tête over lunch with Charcot. A summer’s day. The
Madeleine didn’t show himself. He ended up in the Midi, near Carpentras; at his sister’s place in the country. One day he thinks about the Café Riche, about sitting there with a rug over his knees, gazing in despair at the boulevard which killed him, and which killed Aubryet. The table at the Café Riche opposite that of the Café Anglais. Mental torture.*37 — A day at Auteuil. In a garden full of roses, with gentle sunshine and the smell of warm blossom, I can’t escape the image of poor
gradual increase in sorrow, in punishment. — He names me as executor of his will. This is an affectionate and thoughtful gesture: he wants to make me believe I’ll live longer than him.*46 — The prisoner imagines freedom to be more wonderful than it is. The patient imagines good health to be a source of ineffable pleasure – which it isn’t. All that we lack is a sense of the divine. — Can’t get down my front steps at Champrosay unaided; nor at Goncourt’s house. O Pascal!*47 — Pain in the