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In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet

In the Land of Pain (original 1930; edition 2003)

by Alphonse Daudet, Julian Barnes

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Title:In the Land of Pain
Authors:Alphonse Daudet
Other authors:Julian Barnes
Info:Unknown (2003), Edition: 1 Amer ed, Hardcover, 112 pages
Collections:Your library

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In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet (1930)



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In which the nineteenth-century French novelist offers a collection of snippets describing the intense pain he suffered, symptomatic of the late stages of syphilis from which he suffered in his forties and fifties. The first half of the book is a grab-bag; the second, which describes his visits to health spas, is a tad more focused. These are obviously the musings of a talented writer, but they are unfocused and ultimately repetitive: there are only so many ways to say that something hurts. The overly punctilious scholarly apparatus appended by the book's famous editor, Julian Barnes, though necessary to understand Daudet's now-obscure allusions, is literally longer than the text of the book at times. This is a quick read, and, despite the grim subject matter, not an entirely unpleasant one, but not especially compelling.. ( )
  Big_Bang_Gorilla | Jun 26, 2016 |
Daudet is referred to, more than once, in Flaubert’s Parrot. Daudet was a friend and compatriot of Turgenev, Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, Zola and other writers and poets. He died at the age of 57 (1897) of tertiary syphilis (which he contracted at 17). The disease manifested itself as tabes dorsalis: literally, wasting of the back with progressive loss of motor control and considerable pain. He was diagnosed in 1885 and lived for another 15 years with increasing pain and debility. For long periods he could only function with massive doses of morphine.

For Barnes, part of the attraction of Daudet’s book (really a series of notes over ten years, with some gaps of years when he did not write) is the larger question of “How is it best to write about illness, and dying, and death?” Daudet did write about it by making the notes that he hoped to turn into a book about Pain, but that never came to pass. In his writing, 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, but illness itself is ordinary, day-to-day boring. “

Daudet’s other reaction, on a personal level, was to follow the advice of Larkin: “Courage…means not scaring others”. There are many reports of Daudet rallying if only for a few minutes so as not to alarm family. As he once said: “Suffering is nothing. It’s all a matter of preventing those you love from suffering.” In his notes Daudet says: “Pride in not imposing on others the bad moods and the somber injustices of my sufferings.” As Barnes notes, Daudet’s advice was that, “Illness should be treated as an unwelcome guest, to whom no special attention is accorded; daily life should continue as normally as possible.” Positions that Barnes finds, “difficult, correct (and now unfashionable) ...”

Daudet forced himself to write, even a little, even when in considerable discomfort: “My anguish is great, and I weep as I write…The power of actually being there: I have learnt to my cost, since I have become someone unable to walk, someone no longer visible….Nothing but terror and despair at first; then, gradually, the mind, like the body, adjusts to this appalling condition.”

Interesting observations: “The clever way death cuts us down, but makes it look like just a thinning-out. Generations never fall with one blow—that would be too sad and too obvious. Death prefers to do it piecemeal. The meadow is attacked from several sides at the same time. One of us goes one day; another some time afterwards; you have to stand back and look around you to take in what’s missing, to grasp the vast slaughter of your generation.”

Is it indeed even possible to really describe the experience: “How much I suffered last night, in my heel and in my ribs. Sheer torture…there are no words to express it, only howls of pain could do so
Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless of untruthful. No general theory about pain. Each patient discovers his own, and the nature of pain varies, like a singer’s voice, according to the acoustics of the hall.”

On another tangent, it is interesting to see how Daudet reflected the inconsistency of human character. He was, according to Barnes, “viewed as a sunny humorist and clear stylist”; he was highly successful and rich; Charles Dickens called him, “my little brother in France” and Henry James referred to him as, “a great little novelist”. He was, as outlined above and in his notes, stalwart in the face of terrible pain and cared for the well-being of loved ones above his own comfort; he appears to have been a staunch friend to many. And he was a strong anti-Semite. He encouraged the publication of a two volume work, La France juive, which “did much to intensify French anti-semitism in the years before the Dreyfus case.” Barnes notes that the book sold, “shamefully well” with multiple editions including one issued in 1943 as the French were supplying their quota of Jews to the German death camps. His son, Leon, became a leading rightist figure in France and supporter of the Vichy regime.

Not surprising, in its way. In nothing to be frightened of, Barnes notes, with respect to writers: “They might indeed be sensitive, perceptive, wise, generalizing and particularizing—but only at their desks and in their books. When they venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they had left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts. “ Examples of this abound throughout history. Barnes asks his brother if philosophers are any better: “Not a whit wiser for being philosophers. Worse, in their semi-public lives, far less wise than many other species of academics.”

It is, quite simply the human condition.
1 vote John | Dec 21, 2012 |
Alphonse Daudet was arguably the most famous writer in the world for a brief period in the late 1870s. Today he is largely unread and hardly known. I've made an effort to read a lot of his work because I like his breezy charming style, wide variety and his happy go-lucky nature. However he also had a dark side, the last years of his life were a living hell in the late stages of syphilis which caused excruciating neurological pain that moved unpredictably throughout his body. Chronic pain, as Daudet knew, is not a great muse for writing, but he made an attempt to write about it. He never completed the book before his death, but did produce about 50 pages of notes, which were published by his wife in 1930 (in French), and translated by Julian Barnes into English in 2003.

As Barnes writes in the Introduction, Daudet discovers "the ironies and paradoxes of long-term illness: Surrounded by those you love, and unwilling to inflict pain on them, you deliberately talk down your suffering, and thus deprive yourself of the comfort you crave. Next, you discover that your pain, while always new to you, quickly becomes repetitive and banal to your intimates: you fear becoming a symptoms bore. Meanwhile, the anticipation of indignities to come - and the terror disgusting those you love - makes suicide not just tempting but logical; the catch is that those you love have already insisted that you live, if only for them." (Introduction, xi)

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2010 cc-by-nd ( )
  Stbalbach | Apr 3, 2010 |
Daudet was primarily known as an author of light comedies in the 19th century. This book chronicles his suffering at the hands of syphillis, and so not exactly light comedy...

I found the book uplifting despite the subject. Daudet was a man of deep introspection as many comedians tend to be. ( )
  clothingoptional | Feb 27, 2006 |
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Originally published in French as Le Doulou (1930)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375414851, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:41 -0400)

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