Monday, May 03, 2004

"Courage means not scaring others"

I had never heard of Alphonse Daudet before but I bought a copy of In the Land of Pain on a recommendation (Thanks Rosey!). Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a well known and well respected French novelist, playwright and journalist. Zola, Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, Turgenev were all friends. At the age of 17 Daudet contracted syphilis. After its initial treatment with mercury it went into dormancy and Daudet married and had three children. But in the early 1880s the syphilis returned in the form of a neurosyphilis called tabes dorsalis. This manifestation of the disease is locomotor ataxia, or a progressive inability to control one's movements, and eventual paralysis. Daudet suffered with ever increasing pain for more than twelve years. At one point he considered suicide but his wife insisted he must continue living for her and the children. And so he continued on, "Suffering is nothing. It's all a matter of preventing those you love from suffering." He discovered early on that surrounded by those he loved, he was not willing to make them suffer, so he would deliberately make light of his pain. He realized that while the pain was always new and fresh to him, others quickly grew bored by it. To help him deal with his suffering he turned to writing. In the Land of Pain was meant to be notes toward a novel about Pain. While he continued working and publishing during his declining years, he never did write the novel about pain. We are, however, lucky to be able to read his approximately fifty pages of notes detailing his thoughts about his own pain and its indignities. In the Land of Pain is a sad book, especially if you know someone who suffers from chronic pain. There is a simplicity and a clarity that brings a sort of transcendence to the writing. But even Daudet doubted what he wrote:

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 or untruthful.
Still, he wrote. And he lived on and tried to find a cure and when no cure was to be had tried to find relief from the constant pain:
Daudet's advice to his fellow-patients was pragmatic. Illness should be treated as an unwanted guest, to whom no special attention is accorded; daily life should continue as normally as possible. "I don't believe I will get better," he said, "and nor does Charcot. yet I always behave as if my damned pains were going to disappear by tomorrow morning."
The book is well worth an afternoon's reading. While Daudet's pain and decline are sad, the book is not depressing. Julian Barnes did a wonderful job on the translation. He includes an interesting introduction and short biography of Daudet and concludes the book with "A Note on Syphilis." This last part is a fascinating look at Daudet's illness and the "cures" he subjected himself to as well as a historical look at the various treatments for the disease. After reading In the Land of Pain, I, who have never suffered from any kind of long term or serious pain, feel like I understand better what it must be like for those who do suffer. I am also curious to give a Daudet novel a go to find out why Henry James called him "the happiest novelist," and "the most charming story-teller" of his day.