Indeed, this book is spellbinding. Between the mental patients, the overly-confident doctors who treat them, the women suffering from hysteria, the dazzling acrobat, and the man who simply walks across Europe, this book is like a an eerie, unsettling dream that you cannot shake from your head.
Maud and I shared a fascinating discussion about The Man Who Walked Away, in which Maud brought up “ovary belts,” the difficulty in simply being human, and a “hunger for peace.”
The character of Albert, the man who walks across Europe in a sort of dreamlike state, is loosely based on a man named Albert Dadas who was in a Bordeaux hospital in the 1880s. How did you find Dadas’ case and why do you think you were so drawn to it?
It’s all Ian Hacking’s fault. Or, rather, it’s my mother’s fault. She gave me Hacking’s wonderful book—actually, it’s a series of lectures—called Mad Travelers: On Transient Mental Illness about psychiatric diagnoses that arise in a particular place, at a particular moment in history, for political, cultural, societal reasons, and then disappear. (This is a gross reduction of his very elegant and appealingly provocative argument.) The featured case in these lectures was that of Albert Dadas, a gas fitter from Bordeaux, who wandered in a semi-trance state for years and eventually sought treatment because he could not stop wandering. I read the story of Dadas while I was working on my last novel, Genealogy, and it stayed with me for years. Part of what stayed with me was the story itself. The intriguing words of Dadas’ doctor, Philippe Tissié from Les Aliénés Voyageurs (1887):
It all began one morning when we noticed a young man . . . crying in his bed in Dr. Pitre’s ward. He had just come from a long journey on foot and was exhausted, but that was not the cause of his tears. He wept because he could not prevent himself from departing on a trip when the need took him; he deserted family, work, and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes doing 70 kilometers a day on foot, until in the end he would be arrested for vagrancy and thrown in prison.
19th century case histories read like novels. They were, in fact, a kind of storytelling. They were narratives meant to contain the uncontainable, to give the amorphous, messy quality of being human some borders and, in that way, to give the suffering human some relief from, well, humanness. So there was that.
And then there were, in the transcripts Hacking includes at the end of his book, the beguiling descriptions in Dadas’ own words of wandering Europe, sometimes seventy kilometers in a day, often without sleeping or eating. He would wake up—find himself, discover himself were the phrases he often used—in this public square or that one, countries away from home, not knowing how he got there. The way Dadas describes his travels is as if he is recounting the delightful and amazing story of someone else: “One fine day I awoke on the train,” he says. “I was at Puyoo. ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘yet another escape. What a calamity!’ ” When he arrived in Moscow soon after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, he was mistaken for a wanted nihilist and imprisoned. “Some fifty [prisoners] were called to be sent to Siberia. Let’s go, I said to myself, laughing when I saw that I no longer need fear the rope. Having learned of my taste for voyages, the Russian government is going to send me on a trip out there, far, far away!” There is a lyrical quality, a musical quality, to the way Dadas narrates his own story, and then there is a tension between what he’s saying and what seems to roil underneath the words, the anguish that lead him to seek treatment. In that tension was a question that created the sort of space into which this novelist might wedge her overactive imagination.
And then, frankly, there was Dadas’ face in the pictures taken of him both “awake” and “hypnotized.” It’s a really sweet, bewildered, verging on goofball, face. I found myself really moved by that face. And so, years later—I first read Hacking’s book in, I think, 2003—I began, tentatively, to write.
Where did you find the character of the doctor who treats Albert? Did you fully create him or is he based on any of the doctors who treated Dadas?
The doctor who treats Albert, referred to in my novel simply as the Doctor, is cobbled together out of some details from the life of Philippe Tissié, the real live doctor who treated the real live Dadas, and out of reading I did about the early days of psychiatry. Tissié was a pretty fascinating character. Among other things, he was a big cycler, the first doctor for the Bordeaux cycling club, and that was a useful detail. Albert is walking; his doctor is cycling; everyone is in motion at this moment in history when the culture of time and space were being transformed by inventions like the steam engine and the telegraph, and there’s an emphasis on travel in the form of mass tourism and the romantic traveling of the flâneurs. I was fascinated by the transparent intimacy between doctors and patients, and the relationship between Tissié and Dadas were no exception. Hypnosis, the medical intervention du jour, and which Tissié employed with Dadas, required the doctors to literally lay hands on their patients. One of my favorite details: the hypnotist blows on the eyelids of the hypnotized to wake him or her from hypnosis. There was a lot of crashing around. No one knew exactly what they were doing and, not so different from today, there were doctors with good intentions and doctors on power trips and also perfectly well intentioned doctors on power trips. The soul is a difficult thing to treat. So, in answer to the question, my Doctor began with Tissié but then morphed into a fictional creature.
I had a lot of difficulty initially figuring out my relationship as a contemporary fiction writer to this historical moment and to these historical figures. From what angle? From what distance? There were some, er, meltdowns. I wanted to respect the era, and create the feeling of that era. I wanted to be in conversation with the history but I also wanted to distance myself just a bit. Partly out of respect for the real people, partly out of an interest in exploring what fiction can do that history can’t (and respecting what history can do that fiction can’t). Let’s put it this way: There were a lot of conversations with myself about respect. Also, a lot of conversations with myself that began with Girl, what were you thinking? I arrived at a tone that has a certain fairy tale quality, and that included my decision to give the Doctor his more universal moniker the Doctor and to call Albert by his first name only.
I love the Doctor’s recurring memory of the great Leotard. Can you talk about that a little—what Leotard means to you, how and why you decided to work him into the narrative and particularly into the Doctor’s story?
I’m so glad! And I’m so glad you asked this question! I love answering it for so many reasons. The first is that I love beginning a sentence with “What the Great Léotard means to me.” What the Great Léotard means to me has to do with the wondrous and wonderful combination of the bold, the brave, and the absurd. Jules Léotard, the real guy, was a trapeze artist who gave his name to that spectacular form-fitting outfit, the leotard. It allowed him to more easily fly through the air with the greatest of ease. He was, in fact, the inspiration, for George Leybourne’s song, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Léotard died quite young—at the age of 28—of smallpox but he got some good living in.
The way he ended up in my novel is that I read somewhere about an unprecedented 40-mile bicycle ride he took through a number of small towns in France. The combination of this man in his spectacular form-fitting outfit performing audacious and miraculous trapeze feats with what was then a relatively new form of technology (the bicycle) seemed like the perfect inspiration for my Doctor who is embroiled in a new form of medicine (mental medicine, as it was sometimes called). In the novel, the Doctor as a young boy sees the Great Léotard roll through town and he understands it as an invitation to be this great. It becomes a kind of siren call that leads the Doctor on his own quest for greatness. In some ways—to leap centuries—it’s a little like the beautifully realized moment in Patti Smith’s Just Kids when she understands she wants to be an artist. She doesn’t yet know what kind of artist; she just wants to make art. She just wants to be this great.
In the background of this story is the idea of hysteria and convulsing, twitching women being diagnosed with it. Can you tell me more about this?
My impulse here is to direct everyone to some wonderful books on the subject of hysteria in the 19th century. It is a fascinating, disturbing rabbit hole—a rabbit warren—into which it is easy to fall. I’ll limit myself to the recommendation of three really good books that were important to my thinking about it in relation to my novel. The first is The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photgraphic Iconography of the Salpêtrière by Georges Didi-Huberman; the second is Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris by Asti Hustvedt; the third is Charcot the Clinician: The Tuesday Lessons, edited by Clifford Goetz. Hysteria, and Jean-Marie Charcot, the famous neurologist who resurrected the diagnosis by the time Dadas washed up on Tissié’s shore, is a weird, and often really upsetting, example of Hacking’s concept of transient mental illnesses.“Hysteria will find its place in the sun,” Charcot declared once in a scientific journal. The fact was, by the time he made this declaration, it already had. There was an epidemic of sorts—women collapsing in fits, masturbating in public, being struck with paralysis. Society women played at having attacks at parties. As Edward Shorter (author of the fabulous and fabulously named Psychosomatic Illness: From Paralysis to Fatigue) would say, there was a “symptom pool.” In other words, there was a kind of script for the pain. Which is not to say these women weren’t in pain. Only to suggest that the arcs de cercle, a nineteenth-century asylum version of what I often do now in yoga and call “bow,” was a regular part of the physical vocabulary of women diagnosed with hysteria. It’s worth noting that when Charcot died, hysteria died too. One of the ingenious things that Charcot did—and he, too, was a doctor of his time, both well intentioned, really smart, and on a kind of power trip—was to describe the source of hysteria as an invisible lesion. What ensued was a lot of ovary adjustment (for a good time, google “ovarian compression belt”), and much pointing of fingers at the problem of the female body (though, interestingly, there were male hysterics as well, but their hysteria wasn’t linked to the fact of their male bodies).
Many people think that there’s always a version of the writer within the novel they’ve written. If this is true, where are you in The Man Who Walked Away?
Everywhere. I’m serious. Albert, c’est moi! Though this is my first foray into historical-ish fiction, and for that reason one might think that means more distance between the material and myself, in certain ways this is the novel that feels the closest to me. Partly, it’s that the engine that set this whole thing in motion was Albert Dadas and I find Dadas an incredibly moving figure. Not moving from afar, but from up close. I deeply empathize with his plight. Wandering around, lost in the world, lost to himself? I get that. I’ve done that. It’s not an exact fit. For example, I generally know where I am. But still. And then there’s something about the sensibility of the novel that feels very close to how I’ve been feeling about the world lately—an occasionally ecstatic relationship to nature, a hunger for peace, an admiration for people who are doing their best to make their way through the beautiful absurdity that is life.