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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, March 5th, 2003


 

In the Land of Pain

by Alphonse Daudet

A Book Before Dying

A review by Adrienne Miller

"Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over," writes Alphonse Daudet. "They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful." In the Land of Pain, Daudet's brilliant chronicle of his ruin from syphilis, is an eighty-page compilation of notes, a stripping away of artifice: Only what's true remains. And Barnes's splendid translation, which was originally published in French as La Doulou, is an illumination to read.

Daudet, a now-obscure nineteenth-century French novelist, caught syphilis from a high-class courtesan when he was seventeen...an age when such a, um, romantic disease — contracted from such a seemingly lofty source — must have seemed a perverse badge of honor. (Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Maupassant all had it, after all). A century after Daudet's death, his books have been forgotten, but during his lifetime, he was quite the literary man-about-town — famous, wealthy, and a raconteur of considerable erudition. As the disease wracked his body, his facilities stayed, horribly, you might say, intact. Even right at the end of his life, convalescing (but not really) at a spa, his brain was still sharp and funny: "No one remembers anyone's names; brains are racked all the time; there are great holes in conversation. It took ten of us to come up with the word 'industrial.'" Daudet lived a large portion of his accomplished life in pure pain and wrote this beautiful, intricate little book about his death — and that's as much a testament to the human will to survive, in spite of everything, as anything ever was.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.


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