The French Complaint

The Horror of Life

by Roger L. Williams
University of Chicago Press, 381 pp., $22.50

Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire; drawing by David Levine

This arresting title may lead the reader to expect some great Promethean outburst, but in fact what we have here is a book by a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wyoming, consisting of a preface followed by five chapters, each devoted to the medical-cum-psychological case history of a celebrated French writer of the nineteenth century. The physical and mental sufferings of these five men—Charles Baudelaire, Jules de Goncourt, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet—are very familiar to students of French literature. All five died comparatively young. Before death, Goncourt and Maupassant lapsed into imbecility. One of the most poignant phrases in literary history is the doctor’s comment on Maupassant during the last months of his life: “Monsieur de Maupassant s’animalise,” with its ironic contrast between the particle of nobility and the ignoble verb. Baudelaire, the greatest poet in the language according to some critics, became speechless during his last phase and could only give vent to the crude oath: “Cré Nom!” (Sacré Nom de Dieu). Although Flaubert and Daudet retained their powers of expression until the end, they suffered at times the tortures of the damned and had frequent recourse to drugs.

It has usually been assumed that all five were syphilitic, and that the appalling symptoms which afflicted them, migraines, swellings, stiffness, vomiting, vertigo, etc., corresponded to the primary, secondary, and tertiary stages of the disease. Syphilis was not completely understood in the nineteenth century, no effective treatment was available, and it may well be that the supposed cures or palliatives prescribed for these unhappy men only served to complicate their martyrdom with disastrous side effects.

What is more, their physical disabilities were closely interwoven with grave psychological problems. Consequently, it is not easy to disentangle the purely medical elements of their plight from the psychiatric or the psychosomatic. All five had troubled relations with their mothers and/or fathers, and perhaps never overcame the adverse conditioning of childhood and adolescence. None, with the possible exception of Daudet, can be said to have had a complete and satisfactory union with a woman, and indeed four of them can be classed as misogynists. Only Daudet founded a family. Maupassant had three illegitimate children, to whom he seems to have remained completely indifferent. As far as is known, Baudelaire, Goncourt, and Flaubert were childless; when there was a danger that Flaubert’s mistress, Louise Colet, might be pregnant, he wrote her vehement letters about the folly of passing on the curse of life. Again with the possible exception of Daudet, none of them was ever fully integrated into the society of his time, although Maupassant had a meteoric career and made a fortune from his short stories. Baudelaire was a Bohemian dropout, Flaubert a hermit, and Jules de Goncourt, with his brother Edmond, a convinced believer in the ivory tower. In short, in the case of four, if not…

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