Interview: Julian Barnes Essay, Research Paper
A painful taleSoon after he finished his most recent novel (Love, Etc) and while he was preparing a volume of journalism for publication, Julian Barnes undertook a strange labour of love, a new translation of a forgotten pocket masterpiece by a forgotten pocket French writer, a very short, moving, book about pain.This was the intimate diary kept by Alphonse Daudet in the excruciating last decade of his life during his battle with the (to us) almost unimaginable horrors of tertiary syphilis, published in France in 1930 under the title La Doulou.Barnes says he discovered this little text when he was writing Flaubert’s Parrot and researching syphilis in nineteenth-century France. ‘I quoted it a couple if times [in Flaubert’s Parrot], and it never went away from me.’At first blush In the Land of Pain (Jonathan Cape £10, pp87) looks like an oddly visceral book for the famously urbane, cool and dispassionate Barnes to have become interested in, but closer examination reveals an intriguing vulnerability on his part.’Death has always been a topic on my mind,’ says Barnes. ‘I’ve thought about death… every day of my life since I was about 15. I think it was [Daudet’s] attitude to the subject that attracted me: the calm and steady gaze on acute suffering, and the certainty of death.’There’s also a straightforward literary side to his fascination. He admits that translating the book was a kind of voyeurism. ‘I’ve never suffered,’ he says, but he does have ‘the cold curiosity of the writer’ which once made him ask a friend who had had a gall stone operation, what was it like? “What was the pain like, then?” ‘And he just looked at me and turned white at the memory of what he’d suffered, and he said, “It’s inexpressible”.’Daudet himself said that the words come only after the pain has gone. Accordingly, he turned the experience of late-nineteenth-century medical care into an uneven and fragmentary record that deserves a place in the European literature of pain.For roughly the first two-thirds, some 50 pages, the reader suffers with Daudet, the ‘one-man-band of pain’, as he approaches the point at which it is clear he wants only to die. Then, for the last 30 pages, the book becomes a high-spirited and irreverent account of everyday life in a nineteenth-century spa, a sometimes hilarious portrait of the various invalids Daudet encountered on his forced march towards the grave. These closing pages are apparently much closer in spirit to the Daudet known to his illustrious literary friends and contemporaries – Flaubert, Turgenev, Dickens and Henry James.Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was one of the most popular French novelists of the late-nineteenth-century, a zestful, and incorrigibly promiscuous, author whose books are full of genial charm and good cheer. He was a distinguished member of the generation that included de Maupassant, Zola and the Goncourt brothers (Jules Goncourt and de Maupassant also died of tertiary syphilis).Daudet’s intimate notebook of incurable syphilis is highly personal (his documentary record of some of the fashionable treatments for the disease hardly makes easy reading), but it’s typical of its time in not being confessional, and not at all revealing in the personal way we would expect.Barnes is attracted to this. ‘We live in a confessional age, but I think they… looked at life in the face more truthfully than we do.’Barnes says that In The Land of Pain connects with his study of Flaubert. ‘It obeys the Flaubertian belief that the only way of handling the horror of life was through inspecting it with a pitiless eye. Flaubert says at one point, “It is only by gazing down at the black pit at our feet that we remain calm”.’If the subject matter was terrifying, the experience of translation, a new one for Barnes, was a bit of a holiday: ‘It’s a curious mixture of responsibility and irresponsibility. It’s not your text, but on the other hand, you feel deeply attached to the man and the writer, and wanting to do well for him… It’s quite liberating, because I can go up and say to people, “You ought to buy this book, it’s an absolute masterpiece – but I didn’t write it!” Actually, it probably took me longer to translate it, word for word, than it took him to write it…’To some observers, Barnes is a writer who had led a charmed life. Was he attracted to Daudet because his experience offered such a contrast? He dismisses this line of speculation.’Whether I translated a book about something very nasty out of a superstition that this would ward off something similar happening to me, I really can’t answer, and as a writer you don’t want to know those answers anyway…. I was attracted to [La Doulou] as a piece of writing, and as a piece of human experience. I genuinely think it’s a book that should be read in English. I wanted to do service to Daudet. Perhaps a psychobiographer of me would say differently.’Once again, he returns to the literary dimension of Daudet’s work. ‘His heart is suffering. His mind is deeply active, and his literary consciousness never goes away. He’s a writer to the very, very end, and that’s something I associate with. I’ll be scribbling those notes on my deathbed. They’ll be completely incoherent, but I’ll be scribbling them.’· Julian Barnes was born in Leicester in 1946. He is the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, for which he won the Prix Medicis, and many novels. He lives in London.