For devoted readers of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain and Baudelaire’s fevered journals, a 19th-century account of slow death by syphilis.
“Spasms in the right foot, with pains shooting all the way up my sides. I feel like a one-man band, tugging on all his strings and playing all his instruments at once.” Thus Daudet (1840–97), giving little evidence to support Henry James’s wistful remark that the French author (and renowned anti-Semite) was “the happiest novelist of his day.” Daudet contracted syphilis at the age of 17—he liked to point out that its source was a lady of the court, not some streetwalker—and discovered in his mid-40s that the disease had transformed into tabes dorsalis, an exceedingly agonizing variety that moved many of its sufferers to suicide. The always-observant writer took the occasion to record his lingering demise, making notes that were later published as La Doulou (the Provençal version of the French douleur, “pain”). In his thoughtful introduction (which gets in a few digs at another recorder of his own death, Harold Brodkey), British novelist Barnes describes his encounter with Daudet’s journals while researching his 1982 novel Flaubert’s Parrot; though he reckons the Frenchman to be not unjustly forgotten today, he makes a good case for the intrinsic interest of Daudet’s detailed account of an illness that has since been all but eradicated. That account—full of remarks like, “My arse-hole, instead of wanting to expel things, seems to want to suck them up. It’s like an octopus. When I have an enema, I’m afraid it’s going to swallow up the pump”—is not for the tender of sensibility, though it speaks well to Graham Greene’s remark that a writer has to have a chip of ice in the heart in order to record the world truly.
Harrowing and altogether memorable.