In the Land of Pain


"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 ...
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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 ("Morphine 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?"
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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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375414855
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2003
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Pages: 112
  • Product dimensions: 5.42 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Julian Barnes editor and translator of In the Land of Pain
Q: Charles Dickens called Alphonse Daudet “his little brother in France,” and Daudet’s friends and contemporaries were Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola. Why has he become, as you call him in your introduction, “ a substantially forgotten writer nowadays,” and why is he important?
A: I think he was one of those writers, extremely popular in his day, whose work has most of its appeal to his contemporaries. Also, while he is a very good writer—novelist, playwright, journalist—he was, in the final judgment, less great than the three friends whose names you cite. He is still read—Letters from My Mill and the Tartarin books are always in print—but this vein of humorous Provencal fiction is only one side of him. The rest has more of less vanished. I think that’s a bit unfair, thought I wouldn’t claim that his collected works are full of forgotten masterpieces waiting to be resurrected. But In the Land of Pain—hitherto completely unknown outside France, and never before translated—is a work that falls outside any obvious category, and demands not rediscovery (since our predecessors didn’t know it) but discovery.
Q:What drew you do Daudet and specifically his notes on his experience living and suffering with an incurable case of syphilis?
A: In about 1982/3 I was researching my novel Flaubert’s Parrot, and came across a reference to this book with a strange title, La Doulou, in which Daudet wrote about his experiences as a tertiary syphilitic. Flaubert also had syphilis (but barely alluded to it), so Ilooked up the Daudet in a university library. I was immediately struck by its extraordinary truthfulness, lack of self-pity, precision and wry humour. In the old phrase, grace under pressure—extreme pressure. The book lodged in my mind and never really left. A couple of years ago I thought I ought to reread it, and wondered why it (still) hadn’t been translated. (Well, because no one knew about it—I still haven’t met anyone in England who’s read it in French). So I thought I’d write one of those articles in a literary magazine saying ‘Why hasn’t this small masterpiece been translated?’ Then I thought, Do it yourself, matey. So I did.
Q: You also say in your introduction that if Daudet “dined in the highest company, he was also a member of a less enviable 19th century French club: that of literary syphilitics.”
What was the connection between syphilis and the literati of the time? Did other writers record their experiences?
A: A number of writers—Flaubert, Jules de Goncourt, Maupassant, Baudelaire—had syphilis; likewise others in the artistic field. But they were far from atypical; as Daudet’s notes about the spas he visited in an attempt to cure his disease make plain, syphilis was common in all walks of life. We hear more about ‘artistic syphilis’ because we are interested in the artist (and sometimes try to theorize about the extent to which their art is affected by the grim disease’s presence in their lives); but of course for every famous writer who caught syphilis, there is usually an unfamous non-writer from whom he caught it. These we forget more easily. Few writers recorded their experiences—though Edmond de Goncourt recorded his brother Jules’ suffering in his Journal. After Jules died, Edmond made a new best friend and surrogate brother in Alphonse Daudet—only to watch him go through the same terrible, inexorable suffering that he had witnessed already. Further, Daudet kept asking Goncourt about what Jules was going through at a similar stage, and measuring his progress—or regress—against that of his friend’s dead brother. This generation of writers did look life, in all of its facets, full in the face.
Q: Which of Daudet’s works are available in English, and what would you recommend to someone interested in reading more of his work?
A: I should imagine Letters from My Mill exists in English. But most of him is out of print. However, since he was translated and reprinted many time, the estimable will doubtless be able to supply anything. Sappho, The Evangelist, and Numa Roumestan are certainly worth investigating. But only after you’ve read In the Land of Pain, of course.
Q: What do you think Daudet’s observations have to offer people suffering from chronic pain/disease today?
A: People don’t die of tertiary syphilis any more in the developed world. And pain control is better nowadays. But obviously AIDS offers a parallel case—especially in its earliest, seemingly untreatable days. And diseases carrying death sentences are still with us. What is central and timeless about In the Land of Pain, what makes it speak to us directly and harrowingly, isn’t the fact of syphilis but the more general encounter with pain: physical, moral, familial, social. Daudet’s response to it, never boastful, never self-pitying, seems to me to be exemplary—though he would not have thought of himself as an example. I’d also say that what he has written is relevant to each of us, however young, healthy, and chaste we might be. To be born is to receive a life sentence of anything between zero and one hundred years. Daudet—when he learned that his condition could not be cured—received one of between five and fifteen years. So he faced, in a shorter period, what we all face in what we hope will be a longer one. As a courageous truth-teller who has gone before, he is worthy of our attention—and our honouring.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2013

    Beauty In the Land of Pain, September 18, 2013 I became interest

    Beauty In the Land of Pain, September 18, 2013
    I became interested in reading about Alphonse Daudet's handling of syphillis after I finished reading Stanley Jackson's superb and touching biography of Guy de Maupassant who involuntarily entered a madhouse and died there as a result of his self-same disease.
    While Alphonse Daudet suffered and grew more physically incapacitated, his mental faculties remained sharp, enough to write rather pithy, moving, even funny scenes of life while he suffered.
    The most piercing observation Monsieur Daudet made in this collection of notes for this reader is found on page 41: "You have to die so many times before you die. . . ."
    I think this particular book might be a great comfort to someone who is very ill, as it is to someone who is healthy.
    The footnotes by Julian Barnes are very helpful in illuminating Daudet's aphorisms, descriptions and observations as they provide a wider context for comprehension as well as background and other biographical data.
    Julian Barnes's "A Note on Syphillis" should have been placed at the very beginning of this collection in order to provide the reader with a less mysterious and unclear introduction to "tabes." I also discovered in one of his footnotes an unnerving reference to "German death camps" during WWII. There were work camps in Germany called concentration camps, but no death camps. I quickly realized that if the editor could lie, distort or exaggerate so egregiously about just one aspect of history, the likelihood of his doing so about Daudet's notes became a cautionary lesson, particularly since the original manuscript Daudet left after his death was lost and now the "victors" or survivors or those now living have a chance to put their own touches, spins or propaganda on it.
    Nonetheless, this was not a depressing reading experience. It was elevating and fortifying, and this book is a positive gift from a poet who loved life with all its imperfections. You do lovingly learn a lot about the Daudet family and about Daudet's wonderful relationship to the Goncourt brothers as well along the way.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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