It is a strange business when you think that French literary icon Alphonse Daudet, whose stories about windmills and goats etc were being dutifully read by young French schoolchildren raised in the best Catholic tradition, actually spent most of his time hitting the brothels of Paris. And he did so with such enthusiasm that he contracted syphilis and had to spend the best part of his later years in ‘The Land of Pain’. This is the title of Daudet’s biography of suffering; he committed pain to paper in his final years, and renowned author Julian Barnes has translated it beautifully in this new edition.
Not that there was anything particularly unusual about contracting syphilis in Paris in the 19th century. Practically any artist worth his salt had the disease. Baudelaire, Flaubert and Maupassant had all caught it. It had almost become the accolade of a life worth living — or in this case a death worth writing about. The days when it was fashionable to contract venereal disease are thankfully behind us now, but the French literary elite was still notching it up as a victory in the 1800s, though over what I cannot say. Flaubert was “triumphant he has caught the clap”; Maupassant was ‘exultant’…“the hair on my arse is sprouting. I’ve got the pox! At last!”. Well, to each man his poison. It makes you wonder if he really knew what he was letting himself in for — Daudet spent years injecting himself with drugs to counter the dreadful pain to the extent that he began to take on the appearance of a pin cushion. Ah, Paris! These days the Parisian experience is more about whether or not your Croque Madame is worth eating; then it was more about whether Madame will give the clap or get it. Shall I take your order for syphilis now, Monsieur, or will you be having the aperitif first? Still, if you live the life you run the risk. Daudet had lost his virginity at the age of twelve and although he knew he was carrying the disease he was not about to limit himself to a life of abstinence, even after having his testicles drained, bless him. His account of the years of torment, morphine and bromide that syphilis provided him is lyrical and amusing (in a macabre sort of way), and in keeping with the best French tradition he has made suffering a chef d’oeuvre, ‘a decade of torment reduced to fifty pages’, which is just as well — fifty pages of pain is enough for anyone. His wife, Madame Daudet, begged him not to write the book, believing it would be the swansong of his literary career. She was right, of course, in that it was the last thing he wrote, but to Daudet it was more about quitting the scene with dignity and style than moaning about his fate.
“Excuse me, Sir, is this your leg or mine?” politely enquires a neighbouring paralytic in a bath at the curative spa where Daudet spent months trying to get better. “Yours, I believe”, replies Daudet apologetically, and the paralytic falls back and dies.
His fellow inmates are a source of constant entertainment.
“Among the ladies. A dear old nun. ‘Haven’t had a bath for fifty years’, she says as she comes in. Russians, both men and women, go into the baths naked. No way of hiding your disease! Alarm among the Southerners.”
Once out of the baths the fun was not, apparently, over…. “the two WCs at the end of the corridor, side-by-side and lit by the same gas-lamp, so that you heard every constipatory groan, every burst of colonic plenitude” did little to help Daudet’s state. “Never before,” he says, “have my poor old nerves been rubbed so raw by the promiscuous contact of hotel life.”
You want to say, well, you asked for it, but by the end of the book all you feel is admiration for words that ring true to the bitter end. As his co-sufferers fall away one by one and his days are numbered, Daudet’s thoughts about everybody’s ‘final chapter’ come with calm acceptance and effortless perspective.
“The clever way death cuts us down, but makes it look like just a thinning-out…The meadow is attacked from several sides at the same time. One of us goes one day; another some time afterwards; you have to stand back and look around you to take in what’s missing, to grasp the vast slaughter of your generation.”
Any Cop?: Next time you do that weekend in Paris, remember your French letters…