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That Cruel Guest

In the Land of Pain By Alphonse Daudet Edited and translated by Julian Barnes (Alfred A. Knopf, 87 pp, $13)

The language requirement in American high schools has always been something of a curricular curiosity, and the abolition nowadays of the hopeful competence that it once proposed is but another sign of the withering away of the state of literary studies. Even so, up until the end of World War II (now, when, my graduate students ask, would that have been?), the text inveterately proposed on which to teethe for linguistic mastery, if the required language happened to be French, was Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de mon moulin. Even in France these good-natured vignettes were a perennial lycée favorite, the author having evinced an exemplary perfection in the vexed matter of sequence of tenses, henceforth something of a Daudet specialty. (After 1945, the already much diminished French requirement probably shifted to Camus's L'Étranger; and at present I cannot even conceive of a plausible choice--perhaps Monique Wittig's L'Ópoponax, a novel in the voice and the vocabulary of a five-year-old girl.) Daudet's letters from his windmill, a set of colorful family snapshots, were written just before the Franco-Prussian War (don't ask), and, like their coeval Silas Marner, they were deemed suitable for American adolescents--no sex, no sordor, just vivaciously recounted peasant capers in closely observed, though, as Zola pointed out, scandalously idealized Provencal landscapes. Daudet's realist phase would come later.

This folkish note, farcically sustained in the manner of Dickens, was sounded again in Tartarin de Tarascon, in the sequel Tartarin sur les Alpes, and even in a "further adventures" of Tartarin, Port Tarascon, eventually translated--for the money, he claimed--by Henry James, who had first met Daudet in the 1870s. "Yes, I have seen Daudet several times," he wrote. "He is a little fellow (very little) with a refined and picturesque head, of a Jewish type." Regardless of type, the acquaintance was pursued (how his elder son Léon Daudet, a founder of the Action Francaise, would have writhed at the racial slur), and James was to become something of a family friend (though he never liked that particular son), entertaining the Daudets in London, when the "great little novelist," as James had called him in The Atlantic Monthly, let him glimpse the inédit annotations on the progress of his disease.

Madame Daudet herself was not to know that it was tertiary syphilis that was killing her husband, though one wonders what she suspected on the many occasions she gave him the assuaging morphine injections that enabled Daudet to produce these disjunct texts, which were published in France only in 1931. In 1889, when Daudet was forty-nine and had eight more years of torment to endure, Henry James reported to William on "Daudet's own queer, deplorable condition which he intensely converts into art, success, copy, etc.--taking professional notes about his constant suffering (terrible in degree) which is to make a book called La Douleur, the most detailed and pessimistic notation of pain qui fût jamais."

But I am losing my sequence of tenses. The initial successes of what James called Daudet's "high-colored little Provencal faconde--like the waving of some spotted bright handkerchief," along with the coquettishly autobiographical tale Le petit chose, the David Copperfield of France, must have worked some slick magic on what are always known as young people of all ages, and in all languages, for I inherited from my grandfather Isaac (no reader of French) the "Works of Alphonse Daudet," twenty turquoise shagreen tomes, supplemented by six identically bound memorial volumes by the author's brother, by his wife, and by his two sons (two volumes each). Evidently my grandfather, who also possessed a refined and picturesque head, of a Jewish type, was a bookish gent who liked to move among fine bindings.

If the renown of Alphonse Daudet had trickled down or bubbled up in Cleveland Heights to this extent--namely a turquoise shagreen shelf about half as long as the crimson morocco set of "Masterpieces of George Sand"--there must have been something doing which no longer does. Who has read a book by Alphonse Daudet? Well, I have. Indeed, I have read most of them (in French, I admit, not in the awful English of my grandfather's splendid set, in which James's translation did not figure and which I sold as soon as I came into that part of my inheritance), and I must approach the plausibly dismissive overtone of my question with some finesse, for my preening answer should afford reasons, or at least inducements, to read not only In the Land of Pain, which is not "a book by Alphonse Daudet" at all, but also other, ulterior works by Daudet. After you, Alphonse.

The prodigy of Provence arrived in Paris in 1857 brimming with journalistic schemes and boulevard plays (which came to much the same thing). Of the plays, only L'Arlésienne--based on material from those windmill letters--survives, owing to the incidental music that Bizet wrote for it, though many of Daudet's nine subsequent novels which had left Provence so far behind were dramatized, or better say "staged," in the flashy manner of the period. The journalism--fugitive and acidulous--and the first of the Paris novels, Froment jeune et Risler ainé, gained Daudet membership in that ardent group of "realists" who met regularly to talk about literature: Flaubert, Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt, and Zola; and from that association his fate was determined. For, as Henry James was to say in a moment of exasperation with "realism" as it was so insistently rehearsed at the Magny dinners, "ignorance of everything but his little professional Paris horizon kept Daudet from the greater imagination, the imagination of the moralist." James is generous even here, however, adding that "Daudet was really more personal, more individual and more inimitable than anyone. None of the various descendants of Balzac who were to find in any degree the fortune that, under Balzac's great impulse, they often went so far to seek, has even perhaps equally arrived at that special success which consists in having drawn from one's talent, from one's whole organization and every attendant circumstance, every drop one was capable of giving."

James holds up for special admiration--this was how I came upon this book and immediately resolved to translate it: wait and see!--the singular "comic novel with a fine tragic movement" Les Rois en Exil or Kings in Exile (1879), in which several dispossessed monarchs take up residence in the French capital, some waiting and plotting for a restoration and chafing under their disgrace, others indifferent, resigned, relieved, eager to console themselves with the pleasures of Paris. And I should even exceed James's "warm immortality of condonation" by recommending one further, very late novel before coming down to La Doulu, or what Julian Barnes calls In the Land of Pain; this is L'Immortel, or The Immortal (1888), Daudet's "Academie-Francaise novel," harsh, bitter, and pervasively grim, without a single character whose virtues are admirable or who could represent simple decency or even command the reader's pity. The book, really a pamphlet-fiction summing up the complaints of three generations of novelists, Balzac to Goncourt, who were disdained by the Notables of Letters, was upon publication saluted as a deliciously wicked scandal sheet that provided the season's favorite salon sport: attaching the presumed real names to its fictional characters. But L'Immortel transcends such entertainments, for its nugatory plot turns on the antithesis between a prototypical academician and an authentic artist; if there is a lot of Mary McCarthy in it, there is even more of Dostoevsky, and the three great chapters--the fifth, which describes the gala dinner of an Academy salon; the eighth, recounting the funeral of the Academy's Perpetual Secretary; and the last, articulating the suicide of the eponymous "hero" (the ironic send-up of the book's title)-- articulate uniquely, among all Daudet's fictions, what it means to call the characters possessed.

In his efficient introduction to La Doulu, Julian Barnes remarks on certain disparities in these notes Daudet began to take in the last ten years of his life, when the syphilis that he had contracted at seventeen, soon after his arrival in Paris, and which had gone into remission for so long, re-surfaced in its tertiary (and mortal) form: "The manuscript is currently untraceable, having apparently been dispersed after Lucien Daudet's death in 1946. The text was certainly edited before first publication [in French]; how much was cut or rearranged is impossible to guess." To his literary friends, and even to his literary sons (but not to his literary wife, though everyone in the family, even Madame Daudet's father, was called upon to administer the frequent doses of morphine and chloral that enabled Alphonse to write, if not to walk), Daudet often spoke of accumulating these materials for an eventual book, perhaps even a novel. As my earlier quotation reveals, Henry James himself, whom we might think of as averse to such intimacies, was invited to inspect the vivid fragments and was aware of Daudet's heroic sacrifice to literary consciousness; in fact James regarded what he saw of La Doulu as part of the Flaubertian pathology of turning everything into art, at all costs.

Daudet apparently stopped recording what was happening to him about three years before he died; which interval, like that in Baudelaire's life and in Maupassant's, belongs to the inconceivable martyrology of syphilis, entirely off the literary record. Barnes points out that the fifty-some pages of clear-headed, often comical notes that here distill a decade of acute suffering are chiefly remarkable for their rare capacity, exactly suited to their fragmentary form, to set down what life--life!--feels like; in other words, to write pain. Curiously, the agonized and agonizing record, chopped and checked as we have it, suggests the best novel that Daudet never wrote, though he alluded to such a project not only to James but to Parisian literary journalists not long before his death: a postmodern novel in which the conflict is reduced, as in those late Beckett texts and plays "for nothing," to the arena of the confiscated self, the valor of clenched teeth: "suffering is nothing," as he once murmured, "it's all a matter of preventing those you love from suffering."

For the transcribing sufferer, pain is always new, fresh, inventive, creative; while for those around him--not cool-handed attendants protected by professional indifference but the very family the man's entire oeuvre was committed to cherishing--his unspecified illness is merely repetitive, banal, boring, sterile. Hence the dramatic paradox in all of La Doulu, the sense that what is imperceptible to others is drastically alive and writhing inside. Daudet repeatedly rehearses the horrors of the encased man:

I feel like some creature from mythology, whose torso is locked in a box of wood or stone, gradually turning numb and then solid. As the paralysis spreads upwards, the sick man changes into a tree or a rock, like some nymph from Ovid's Metamorphoses.… 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 bed. Dysentery. Two injections of morphine a day. No longer able to get out of the habit. My stomach has adapted itself a little: with five or six drops I no longer vomit, although I can't eat. Forced to continue taking chloral. If I've taken morphine beforehand, I sleep very well. But if I have an injection during the night, after the chloral, then my sleep is interrupted and there's no chance anymore for the rest of the night. Restlessness, all my thoughts in turmoil, a frenetic succession of images, projects, themes--a magic lantern. The next day, my head is filled with smoke. I get the shivers. Each injection stops the pain for three or four hours. Then come "the wasps," the stinging and stabbing here, there, and everywhere--followed by the Pain, that cruel guest.

Certainly it is fascinating to speculate, in the light or darkness of such fragments, on the work that would have taken its place among the great imagined (and imaginary) summative conceptions of the nineteenth century, from Mallarme's delusional Livre to Eilert Lovborg's "Book of the Future" that Hedda Gabler consigned to the flames.

In his businesslike way (after all, the editor and translator of even this posthumous work is but one more professional), Barnes adumbrates this ultimate project, but he is too dismissive of the kind of writer Daudet is nowadays perceived to be--"hard-working, popular, whose fame and relevance are largely used up in his own lifetime"--to attribute more than a skillful transcription of pain, terror and even despair to the "vendor of happiness," as Daudet liked to call himself at the end.

Barnes's translation of this unsuspected text of Daudet's --"the first ever," the publisher's promotion exclaims--is crisp, but I find his account of its author to be ultimately inadequate and certainly uncharitable, with comments such as "the twenty-volume collected edition … seemed to have said (more than) it all." I believe that "the fame and relevance" of any writer--even one as clever and seasoned as the author of Flaubert's Parrot, even Flaubert, God help us--will always be "largely used up" unless readers attend to his works with some exploratory sense that the past is not inferior to the present just because we are alive and the past is dead; unless we grant the unexamined books of a bygone author what Blake called the equivalent of prayer--the charity of unmixed attention.

This was to be my little peroration, what the French would call a priere pour le bon usage d'Alphonse Daudet, but then I made a last-minute visit to my university's library, in order to ascertain which chapters of The Immortal were the good ones, or at least the best bad ones, to recommend to readers innocent of Daudet's production. I was feeling rather huffy about Barnes's clever identification of In the Land of Pain as an item of (acceptable) modernist textuality over Daudet's old-fashioned yarns (so much voice-writing, as it were). So conceive my amazement when, mooning along the still-unravished shelves of Daudet pere et fils (et frere et femme) in French and in English, I discovered--it turns out that my discovery may be repeated in all the major libraries of New York City: hardly a maverick trouvaille--a little gold-backed volume called Suffering (1887-1895) by Alphonse Daudet, published by Yale University Press in 1934--three years after the French edition--translated by one Milton Garver "at the request of Madame Alphonse Daudet who is still living in the same apartment where she spent many happy years with her illustrious husband."

This first translation of the work is a little less zippy, a little more smoothed out than Barnes's very contemporary-sounding version. There are places where Garver seems more concerned to make Daudet's meaning clear. (Garver: "Let us try and make the doctor beloved instead of assigning him the role of a brutal and hard butcher." Barnes: "Let's make people love the doctor, rather than play the tough and brutal butcher.") But certainly the Barnes version is sharper throughout and more spontaneous. (Garver: "The mind becomes accustomed to this sinister state." Barnes: "The mind adjusts to this appalling condition.") Garver follows his translation by some pages of bibliographical detail regarding Daudet's plans for publication of the possibly more extensive text, of which he prints the same torso that appears in Barnes's version. He also includes a handsome though ravaged-looking photograph of Daudet and what he calls "the beautiful article of Marcel Proust, published in La Presse, August 11, 1897." Proust's article (one of several he devoted to Daudet, though he wrote even more rapturously of Lucien, the younger son) is a four-page meditation on the great man's countenance, "this work of art which is M. Daudet," and it is followed by a fifteen-page "appreciation of Alphonse Daudet by Andre Ebner, the last secretary of the author."

Barnes cites Ebner several times, but I did not realize that he was the amanuensis-en-titre, having inherited the position from his own father, who served as Daudet's secretary for fifteen years after the Franco-Prussian War. Andre Ebner appropriately concludes his 1930 tribute (Daudet had been dead for thirty-three years) and the entire little volume of the first translation of La Doulu thus:

I seem to see his delicate pale face with half-closed eyes, opposite me at the table, during those joyful hours when I wrote at his dictation, and when in moments of discouragement I try to draw up a balance of the happy moments of my life, I put in the first rank that of having known Alphonse Daudet and of having received the noble lesson of his life as an example. And at once my complainings cease. 

It is naughty of Knopf to claim a "first-ever" translation that has actually been preceded by a handsome and valuable English edition--from a university press, no less!--of the same work some seventy-nine years ago. Barnes, who is not quite the pioneer here, has nonetheless afforded us a literary gem, and I am happy to recommend to readers of our incomparable modernity the efforts of everyone concerned with presenting once again this beautiful and awful little book. Especially the efforts of Alphonse Daudet.

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.