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Cries from the depths

In the Land of Pain, Alphonse Daudet, Edited and translated from the French by Julian Barnes, Alfred A. Knopf: 112 pp., $18 On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf, Paris Press: 64 pp., $20, Sloan-Kettering Abba Kovner, Translated from the Hebrew by Eddie Levenston, Schocken Books: 134 pp., $17

February 09, 2003|Benita Eisler | Benita Eisler is the author of "Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame," which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in biography in 1999, and the forthcoming "Chopin's Funeral."

"On Being Ill" speaks to the inseparable nature of psyche and soma, the tormented mind and body as one. A quarter century after Woolf's essay, Robert Lowell was still circumspect in writing of the breakdowns that led to his periodic commitment. Despair is, quite literally, displaced onto its setting, inaugurating the literature of institutionalized illness. As he writes in "Waking in the Blue":

This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall

at McLean's ....

... Cock of the walk,

I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey

before the metal shaving mirrors,

and see the shaky future grow familiar

in the pinched, indigenous faces

of these thoroughbred mental cases,

twice my age and half my weight.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 384 words Type of Material: Correction
Syphilitic symptoms -- In Book Review on Sunday, a review of "In the Land of Pain" by Alphonse Daudet said one of the symptoms of syphilis was jabes dorsalis. It is tabes dorsalis (literally, a wasting of the back), which causes a loss of control in the limbs.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 16, 2003 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
Syphilitic symptoms -- In the Feb. 9 book review of "In the Land of Pain" by Alphonse Daudet, one of the symptoms of syphilis was misspelled. It should have been tabes dorsalis, not jabes dorsalis.

We are all old timers,

each of us holds a locked razor.

In "Sloan-Kettering," the Israeli poet Abba Kovner records the last months of his life as a patient in New York's center for cancer treatment. After a heroic youth as a Freedom Fighter during the Vilna ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1941, followed by years of guerrilla warfare in the forests of Lithuania, Kovner arrived in Palestine in the late 1940s. Once more, he took up arms, urging on his comrades with the now-mythic plea: They must never again "allow themselves to go like sheep to the slaughter." A soldier-poet, Kovner became the iconic literary figure for a nation at constant war, and Israel honored him with every award, along with vast reserves of popular affection.

The poignancy of his last collection, then, lies not only in the stark fact of its finality; the subject of these poems (published in Hebrew as a single poema) is the trope of the aged warrior reduced to a dying animal. For Kovner the poet, there was a special blow: Suffering from throat cancer, he had to endure the surgical removal of his vocal chords.

Unlike those of the other writers considered here, Kovner's memory is not placed at the service of recalling pain. A patient who knows that this stay represents his last slim hope, he is never allowed to forget his present condition or the probability that there will be no literary dividend of his afflictions. Not least of these is the assault upon his humanity; he is reduced daily, by hospital routine, to the passive object of "procedures." In the haze of painkillers, Kovner relives, sometimes in dreams, the days of heroic sufferings, the dangers and daring of battle:

Every man sitting with his gun. They pass the night

in burrowed earthen dugouts, well camouflaged,

young men and women together....

To wake up mute

in a strange bed

and without the fear of the forest.

Now, bravery consists of enduring solitude and its terrors: "The visiting hour he yearned for / has passed, / the night he dreads / has come."

For this edition, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, has provided a stirring foreword, summoning heroic memories of the survivor generation that this poet continued to inspire. But Kovner is no Lowell. Not helped by a frumpy translation, the tributes to orderlies and doctors, to the unsparing efforts and skills devoted to saving his life, rarely rise above the banality of remarks delivered at a hospital benefit dinner. It may be that the original Hebrew conveys the fabled bluntness of Israeli speech, cutting through rhetoric to accuse the outrages of mutism and death. Or possibly, Kovner's last work, however short of great poetry, serves as another reminder, along with Daudet's journal and Woolf's essay, that the distance from the sickbed to the corridor outside is the longest journey, the one for which there are no words.

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