Pen Ultimate / Hurtful, heartful
Wracked by pain, 19th-century French poet light Alphonse Daudet just kept on writing
In Meir Shalev's book "Esau" (translated into English by Barbara Harshav) the narrator, Mr. Levy, brings his ailing father to a pain clinic and quotes the doctor there: "All patients have a hard time describing their pains in words. Every account begins with `like' - `like a knife,' `like fire,' `like a saw,' `like black dots in my flesh' ... There's an absurdity for you to ponder, Mr. Levy, the metaphor is such a personal thing that you're sure the whole world must understand it ... In fact, pain turns them into poets."
Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a poet. He was one of the most popular French writers of his time; his books are full to the brim with humor and good spirits. The Goncourt brothers, Charles Dickens and Henry James were among his many admirers. He is best known today for his autobiographical novel "Le petit chose," "Tartarin of Tarascon" and "Letters from My Windmill," but in his time, his popularity derived from his novels about Parisian life, like "The Nabob" or "Old Rinsler and Young Fromont." The French Academy of Letters did not see fit to accept him into its fold, and he wrote a satirical novel about it.
Daudet was happily married, and fathered two sons (both of them writers, one of them also a physician) and a daughter, who was born toward the end of his short life. In addition to that, he was a total bohemian. He contracted syphilis when he was a mere 17. But there was nothing exceptional in that in French literary circles at the time. Maupassant thought his syphilis was a proof of virility. Flaubert, who contracted it in Egypt, wrote in his dictionary of ideas that "everyone, more or less, has it." Daudet, unlike his friends-in-malady, could at least claim that his syphilis was a "classy" sort: He contracted it from a woman who was employed to read aloud at the Imperial court.
At the peak of his literary and social career, when he was 45, Daudet's syphilis reached its tertiary stage, neurosyphilis, known also as tabes dorsalis, which is manifested in a progressive inability to control one's movements, pain, collapse of the spine and eventual paralysis.
In 1885 J.M. Charcot, the greatest neurologist of his day, pronounced Daudet as "lost." Yet he lived for another 12 years, in constant pain and with treatments involving being hung from the neck and immersed in water, and daily, even hourly, self-injections, etc. He kept on writing and publishing, entertaining guests for literary dinners - ever the good- natured life and soul of the party.
He confided in Edmond de Goncourt, whose brother Jules died of the disease, and began writing notes about his illness and pain. He wanted to publish a book called "Le Doulou," (the Provencal word for "pain"), but his wife and Goncourt dissuaded him from the idea as they were afraid such a book would effectively end his career as a writer. His wife, who survived him by 40 years, published his notes in French in 1930.
Julian Barnes, the representative of all things French in Great Britain (he wrote, among other things, "Flaubert's Parrot"), translated Daudet's notes into English, added footnotes, a preface and an afterword, publishing them under the title "Alphonse Daudet in the Land of Pain." It begins: "The elemental truths. Pain." And then follows a short dialogue: "What are you doing at the moment?" "I'm in pain."
Daudet's recurring dream was that he is in a capsized boat, whose keel is hurting. He writes (in Barnes' English version): "My friends, the ship is sinking. I'm going down, holed below the waterline. The flag's still nailed to the mast, but there's fire everywhere, even in the water. Beginning of the end. I don't care if my cannon fire lands short, and the whole ship is falling apart. I'm going down fighting." Pain becomes the essence of one's existence: "Very strange the fear that pain inspires nowadays - or rather this pain of mine. It's bearable, and yet I cannot bear it ... Varieties of pain. Sometime on the sole of the foot, an incision, a thin one, hair-thin. Or a penknife stabbing beneath the big toenail ... Rats gnawing at the toes with very sharp teeth. And amid all these woes, the sense of a rocket climbing, climbing up into your skull, and then exploding there as the climax to the show ... Pain finds its way everywhere, into my vision, my feelings, my sense of judgment; it's an infiltration.
"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. 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."
Daudet imagines Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him discussing pain. "Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him. Everyone will get used to it except me."
Daudet keeps on writing, entertaining and reading - among other books, Dr. Livingston's journal of his African expedition - and comments: "My imagination doesn't require anything more of the book than to provide a framework within which it can roam."
Which is painfully true also about this book by and about Alphonse Daudet.