In the Land of Pain

In the Land of Pain

by Alphonse Daudet

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Syphilis may lack something of the romantic aura surrounding tuberculosis in literary history, but it was the illness of choice for the French nineteenth century: Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Maupassant all suffered from it. Daudet, best known for his light, charming stories of southern France (Barnes judges him a tie for fourth-most important syphilitic), died of it, in 1897. These are his notes from underground. They include a narrative of his treatments (in which the author is hung in the air by the jaw and injected with a solution extracted from guinea pigs), ruminations on fear and fraud, and sharp observations of the healthy. But much of the book -- and the book's force -- lies in the patient's flailing search for a language to match his suffering. "Tonight, pain in the form of an impish little bird hopping hither and thither," he writes. "The only part of me that's alive is my pain."
Publishers Weekly
A popular writer in his time and admired by Charles Dickens and Henry James, French novelist, playwright and journalist Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) has been largely forgotten today. According to novelist and essayist Barnes (Something to Declare, etc.), Daudet's work, although considered charming and topical in its heyday, did not have the depth and relevance to transcend its age-with one exception, this small volume, translated into English now for the first time. Basically a loose journal of ideas, metaphors and observations, the book offers a devastating emotional and spiritual portrait of a main in profound physical pain in the tertiary stage of syphilis. Daudet continued to write and publish during his illness, though he experienced bouts of rheumatism and severe fatigue, which progressed on to debilitating "locomotor ataxia (the inability to control one's movements), and finally, paralysis." Daudet's descriptions of his physical ailment are palpably horrifying, and the feelings of isolation and inadequacy that result give readers a new understanding of the psychology of illness. Of the "sheer torture" of his pain, Daudet ultimately concludes that there are no words, "only howls." Words, he says, "only come when everything is over.... They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful." However inadequate the author may believe his words to have been, the indomitable spirit of life that is conveyed on every one of these pages is Daudet's ultimate triumph. 4 illus. (Jan. 16) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
While largely forgotten today, Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) was, in his time, a popular and prolific novelist and playwright who befriended Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola and counted Dickens and Henry James among his admirers. Daudet suffered from the effects of tertiary syphilis, which produced profound pain and neurological dysfunction while leaving his mind unimpaired, and he chronicled his pain in a series of notes and sketches titled La Doulou ("pain"), which he had hoped to work into a larger exploration of the nature of pain and suffering. While this never materialized, his notes, marked by a striking clarity, insight, and objectivity, were subsequently published by his son. Novelist Barnes discovered Daudet while working on Flaubert's Parrot. His translation is fluent, including a biographic sketch in his introduction and detailed notes that explain allusion and alternative accounts. An important supplement to the discourse on disease and pain by Susan Sontag, Arthur Kleinman, and David B. Morris though mostly of interest to specialists in 19th-century literature; recommended for academic libraries.-T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
For devoted readers of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain and Baudelaire’s fevered journals, a 19th-century account of slow death by syphilis. "Spasms in the right foot, with pains shooting all the way up my sides. I feel like a one-man band, tugging on all his strings and playing all his instruments at once." Thus Daudet (1840–97), giving little evidence to support Henry James’s wistful remark that the French author (and renowned anti-Semite) was "the happiest novelist of his day." Daudet contracted syphilis at the age of 17—he liked to point out that its source was a lady of the court, not some streetwalker—and discovered in his mid-40s that the disease had transformed into tabes dorsalis, an exceedingly agonizing variety that moved many of its sufferers to suicide. The always-observant writer took the occasion to record his lingering demise, making notes that were later published as La Doulou (the Provençal version of the French douleur, "pain"). In his thoughtful introduction (which gets in a few digs at another recorder of his own death, Harold Brodkey), British novelist Barnes describes his encounter with Daudet’s journals while researching his 1982 novel Flaubert’s Parrot; though he reckons the Frenchman to be not unjustly forgotten today, he makes a good case for the intrinsic interest of Daudet’s detailed account of an illness that has since been all but eradicated. That account—full of remarks like, "My arse-hole, instead of wanting to expel things, seems to want to suck them up. It’s like an octopus. When I have an enema, I’m afraid it’s going to swallow up the pump"—is not for the tender of sensibility, though it speaks well to Graham Greene’s remark that a writer has to have achip of ice in the heart in order to record the world truly. Harrowing and altogether memorable.
From the Publisher
“Startling . . . splendid. . . . Daudet provides the pain in images that . . . have rarely been equaled; and in words that turn wit to its true task of assaying the dark.” —The New York Times Book Review

“These are [Daudet’s] notes from underground. They include . . . ruminations on fear and fraud, and sharp observations of the healthy. But much of the book—and the book’s force—lies in the patient’s flailing search for a language to match his suffering.” —The New Yorker

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Knopf Publishing Group
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5.42(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Alphonse Daudet was born in Nîmes, France, in 1840. Novelist, playwright, and journalist, his success came through his novels and stories. He contracted syphilis at the age of seventeen and died at the age of fifty-seven.

Julian Barnes is the author of nine novels, a book of stories, and a collection of essays. He is the recipient of the Prix Femina, and in 1988 was made an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He lives in London.

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