After living a life frantically coming and going from one city to the next, one country to another, Albert Dadas was admitted to St. André psychiatric hospital in Bordeaux in 1886. The young man struggled when asked to recall his past or even his age, offering only recollections of chance encounters on city streets and nights spent in jail cells throughout Europe. In her latest novel, The Man Who Walked Away, Maud Casey delivers a riveting narrative of a story loosely based on Albert’s case history and a compassionate tale of the refuge both a patient and doctor find in helping one another. With a deep anguish beckoning him forward, Albert wanders with no solid memories but the train tickets found in his pockets. His only anchor to reality is the pain he feels when the walking stops.
At a time when psychiatry is steadily evolving in Europe, the Doctor (left unnamed but always uppercase) is reassessing his approach to mental medicine as a physician. While struggling with an unresolved past himself, he meets Albert, a new patient of the asylum. Through questioning and trials of hypnosis, the Doctor helps Albert piece together his past and identify the root of his wandering.
While doing research for her previous novel, Genealogy, Casey discovered Albert in Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers, a book that explores mental disorders and questions diagnosis particularly in Albert Dadas’ case. In the back of Hacking’s book, Casey found the transcription of a session between Albert and his physician, Philippe Tissié. The conversation took place both under questioning and hypnosis. “There was a lyricism to the way he spoke that just lodged itself in my brain,” Casey says of Albert. “There was a kind of oddness and eerie innocence to his descriptions. He tried to tell these stories as if they were adventures. Over the next few years, Albert’s voice continued to echo in Casey’s head. Soon enough, she had conceived The Man Who Walked Away.
But after absorbing Dadas’ story, Casey had to let her imagination take over. “It took awhile actually to feel that I had enough history to unhitch myself from the real story and begin to tell my imagined story,” Casey says. “I was interested in being in conversation with history, but I was less interested in writing a kind of mirrored version of the psychiatric case study.” Casey’s ambition was to capture the essence of Albert’s travels. Throughout the novel, her colloquial prose does just that. “The urgency always comes unbidden. But oh, when it does come and he is overcome. Oh, Albert,” Casey writes. “He is beautiful in his song, even to himself. A silky, silky mist.” Albert’s uncontrollable urge fills him with anguish while simultaneously being a means of escape. “Often we think of obsessive behaviors and even addictions as only bad, but there’s something about them that gives the person relief,” Casey says.
While working on the novel, Casey had the opportunity to stay at residencies across Europe: the Dora Maar House in France, the Passa Porta Residency in Brussels and the Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain. (Descending from a literary family—her father, John Casey and mother, novelist Jane Barnes—Casey grew accustomed to a writer’s lifestyle early on). She also made a trip to St. André, still a functioning hospital, in Bordeaux after finishing the novel’s first draft. While visiting the cathedral across the street, Casey—though not a religious person—was moved to light a candle for the real Albert Dadas. “Here I am some random woman in the 21st century completely taken, obsessed by, moved by this peculiar man from the 19th century,” says Casey. “As soon as the book was finished, I started to miss Albert.”
Steph Derstine is Fiction Editor for Foxing Quarterly. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and lives in Austin, Texas.