In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Julian Barnes (2002)

Cover of 'In the Land of Pain'

I first learned of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain from references to it in Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Barnes finds one passage from Daudet so moving that he quotes it twice:

It’s all going … Darkness is gathering me into its arms.
Farewell wife, children, family, the things of my heart …
Farewell me, cherished me, now so hazy, so indistinct

In the Land of Pain is Barnes’ own translation, with extensive annotations, introduction and afterword, of La Doulou (literally, The Painful), which was published in the 1920s, nearly three decades after Daudet’s death.

The book is merely a collection of notes, written over the course of over a decade, while Daudet suffered increasing pain and debility from the ravages taken on his body and mind by syphilis in its tertiary and terminal stage–or, as the Kirkus Reviews reviewer put it, “a 19th-century account of slow death by syphilis.”

One could hardly come up with a less attractive description.

And yet, In the Land of Pain almost radiates with Daudet’s humanity and good humor. Henry James once wrote that Daudet had “an extraordinary sensibility to all the impressions of life and a faculty of language which is in perfect harmony with his wonderful fineness of perception,” and these qualities are on ample display in this slender little book–small in format and under 100 pages long.

And in Julian Barnes, his text has the perfect guide. Barnes notes the unbalanced effect of pain on its sufferer: “… you discover that your pain, while always new to you, quickly becomes repetitive and banal to your intimates….” He provides footnotes that, in themselves, are often quite moving:

Edmond de Goncourt and his brother Jules were so inseparable that in twenty-two years after the death of their mother they were only twice apart for as much as twenty-four hours; so inseparable that they wrote their joint diary in the first person. They moved to Auteuil in 1868; Jules died from tertiary syphilis in 1870. During his final decline, Edmond asked him, “Where are you, my dear chap?” and after a few moments Jules replied, “Always in space, in empty space.” After Jules’ death, Daudet became Edmond’s closest friend, literary confidant and surrogate brother–whereupon Edmond had to witness a harrowing syphilitic decline for the second time. Daudet, for his part, used to quiz Goncourt about Jules’ symptoms, comparing them with his own.

Alphonse DaudetSyphilis took its toll upon Daudet in numerous ways, from random, intense and stabbing pains he could only stay for a few hours with frequent injections of morphine–which had their own unhappy consequences, to the erosion of his spine and the loss of his ability to balance himself and, ultimately, to walk at all. And the range and barbarity of treatments Daudet underwent, as some of them most renowned doctors of his time tried vainly to alleviate his symptoms, if not to effect a cure, are described by Barnes and Daudet in harrowing terms. One learns to value even more the discovery of penicillin.

The disease also attacked Daudet’s very abilities to be a writer:

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.

His notes became a refuge where he could hide the deterioration of his very ability to hold a pen: “I find it impossible to write an address on an envelope when I know that people will read and examine it; whereas in the intimacy of a notebook I can guide my pen as I choose.”

Nonetheless, the comic aspects of his situation are never too far away:

This resort for anaemics has its funny side. No one remembers anyone’s name; brains are racked all the time; there are great holes in the conversation. It took ten of us to come up with the word “industrial.”

Edmond de Goncourt, Marcel Proust, Zola and other acquaintances all noted that as the disease put Daudet in ever greater pain and invalidity, his patience with and concern for others grew to saint-like dimensions. And one of the strongest themes throughout the book is his concern for how his illness affected his family. His greatest regrets are not for himself but for them: “I only know one thing, and that is to shout to my children, ‘Long live Life!’ But it’s so hard to do, while I am ripped apart by pain.”

Daudet stopped writing his notes about three years before his death. He died on 16 December 1897 as he sat at dinner with his wife, children and mother-in-law, chatting about the playwright Edmond Rostand. He was 57.

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated by Julian Barnes
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

3 thoughts on “In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Julian Barnes (2002)

  1. This resort for anaemics has its funny side. No one remembers anyone’s name; brains are racked all the time; there are great holes in the conversation. It took ten of us to come up with the word “industrial.”

    Should the fourth word be “amnesiacs”?
    I read In the Land of Pain when it first came out and either didn’t notice the possible misprint or it wasn’t there….

  2. Daudet dedicates Sappho to “my sons when they are twenty.” What he gives his sons is a withering cautionary tale about the ensnarements of passionate love. An excellent novel.
    Were any theories given as to how Daudet contracted syphilis?

Leave a Comment