The French writer Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) developed the form of tertiary syphilis called tabes dorsalis in the early 1880’s. Tabes progressively destroys the structures of the dorsal column of the spinal cord, leading at first to lower extremity ataxia and neuropathic pain, and eventually to paralysis of the legs associated with intractable pain. Daudet sought treatment from the leading neurologists of his time, including J. M. Charcot and C. E. Brown-Séquard, but the disease progressed relentlessly.

At some point Daudet began making notes for a book about his illness. He spoke to several of his contemporaries about this project, but the book never became more than a collection of brief notes, which were collected and published posthumously as "La Doulou" (Provencal for "pain"). This short book, translated here by Julian Barnes, consists of "fifty or so pages of notes on his symptoms and sufferings, his fears and reflections, and on the strange social life of patients at shower-bath and spa." (p. xiii)

The notes are generally in chronological order, beginning with short comments like "Torture walking back from the baths via the Champs-Elysées" (p. 4) and "Also from that time onwards pins and needles in the feet, burning feelings, hypersensitivity." (p. 6) In a long section toward the end Daudet comments on his experience at Lamalou, a thermal spa that he visited annually from 1885 to 1893. "I’ve passed the stage where illness brings any advantage or helps you understand things; also the stage where it sours your life, puts a harshness in your voice, makes every cogwheel shriek." (p. 65)


Most of these notes are truly fragmentary; they have value insofar as they express one man’s observations and insights about his illness. In that respect they range from the trite or cryptic to the perceptive and even poetic. The book has essentially no narrative thread, except for that inserted by Julian Barnes in his introduction and sometimes extensive footnotes. Barnes also provides the reader with an historical and clinical perspective on syphilis.

Nonetheless, the strength, compassion, and humor of the author’s personality shine through these pages: Daudet emerges as a remarkable person, who was justifiably well loved by his contemporaries. Although Daudet was not known as a poet, many of these presumably random notes are, in fact, miniature poems. Consider this example: "In the dining room: the man who quite suddenly finds himself unable to read the menu. His wife bursts into tears and leaves the table . . . " (p. 63) And here is another: "The hotel. The bell-board. The bath times. / Solitude. / Encroaching darkness." (p. 65)


Translated from the French by Julian Barnes.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York




Julian Barnes

Page Count