Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous condition. Vasseur’s friends and acquaintances provide the material for his journal entries and they, like their respective stories, are connected only loosely—the characters through their relationships with Vasseur and his coterie; the stories in their common theme of man’s cruelty and injustice toward his fellow man.
For Vasseur the picturesque resort town in the Pyrenées does not offer the sensory calm prescribed by his doctor. Instead, when Vasseur looks out at the mountains he sees a foreboding presence, an enclosure that oppresses and suppresses, that draws to it discouragement and despair. An acquaintance tells Vasseur that landscapes are states of mind, and as Vasseur immerses himself (and us) in stories involving madness, dishonesty, and acts of despotism against the weak and poor, the shadows cast by the mountains weigh disturbingly upon Vasseur’s mind and his accumulating journal entries become darker by the day.
From time to time Mirbeau leavens the heaviness of Twenty-One Days: a few of the stories are light and humorous; one or two others strain credulity to the point of absurdity. Mirbeau obviously has fun naming his characters, and with some—Dr. Triceps, Madame de Parabola, Clara Fistula, Jean-Jules-Joseph Lagoffin—his wit rivals that of Charles Dickens.
Mirbeau, in addition to being a successful, turn-of-the century playwright, travel writer and art critic, wrote a handful of well-regarded novels, and Twenty-One Days is considered one of his unconventional works. Conventional or not, Twenty-One Days leaves the reader unsatisfied. Vasseur is an empty vessel, a protagonist who does little more than make a written account of the many stories told to him. Most often he plays no role in these accounts, nor does he engage with his raconteurs in meaningful discussions about them. Instead, Vasseur is like the master of ceremonies in a long variety show in which each act is a bit different from the last, but when strung together, the performances soon feel redundant, lacking in nuance and meaning.
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not without merit. Mirbeau’s prose style is pleasurable, never a chore to read, and his artistry with the written word is evident in Mr. Vicari’s skillful translation. And as a critique of his times it is fun to see Mirabeau poke at many of the pillars of French society—government, military, the bourgeois, artists, corporations, the medical and legal professions—and (as with other of his writings) the great controversy of his time, the Dreyfus affair. Who could quarrel with Mirbeau’s moral that it is man’s lack of compassion and justice that makes his surroundings feel possessed of a menacing mien and that darkens the mind and spirit of humanity?