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Paul Gadenne: Siloé [Siloam]

The title of this book comes from the biblical Pool of Siloam (also known as Pool of Shiloh). While the Pool of Siloam really existed, it is also refers to one of Jesus’ miracles, healing the man blind from birth. While this is, symbolically, relevant, as we shall see this novel has perhaps more to do with Thomas Mann than the Bible.

Our hero is Simon Delambre, based on Gadenne himself. Delambre is studying for his agrégation in literature (the agrégation is an exam teachers had to pass before being permitted to teach). His father had pushed him to become a teacher and, like the rest of the family, Delambre was a serious young man, keen to study and do well. He has not, for example, read Tolstoy, for the simple reason that it is not on the curriculum. The exam was coming up and he was confident. His teacher is so impressed with his work that he calls him in and tells him You are one of us.

He had even more or less abandoned his girlfriend, Hélène, to concentrate on his studies, though she writes to him assiduously. However, he has noticed that he is not feeling particularly well and goes to the (expensive) doctor. The doctor has him X-rayed and there is clearly a spot on his lung – tuberculosis.

Simon has to abandon his exams and his immediate ambitions, as he is confined to bed. He also abandons Hélène – men do not write to women, he says. His father (his mother is dead) decides to send him to sanatorium, the same sanatorium that Gadenne himself was sent to, by Praz-Coutant, above Grenoble.

Initially, things do not go well. His nurse, Sister Saint-Hilaire, is tough and demanding. He is continually told the doctor is away and will see him when he returns. He is confined to bed but can hear both the radio and coughing of his neighbour through the walls. One thing he does like is the splendid view of the mountains that he can see out of his window.

Gradually, however, he is able to get about. He goes exploring but manages to get lost in the cavernous sanatorium. Gradually, he gets to meet the other patients. He finds them less serious than he is. They tell jokes, laugh and mock one another, which is not Simon’s style. One of them, for example, says there are three types of patient – the horizontal, the oblique and the perpendicular (the latter are those are seemingly cured but seem to stay on – one or two are named).

Simon finds that the time hangs heavy but it does not seem to bother the others. He tells them he will be out in three months. If that does happen, they tell him, it will be a record. He should count on being there a year.

However, Simon is about to change. The first change concerns his condition. He had never taken any interest in medical or biological matters and was ignorant of how his body worked. He is gradually learning more about it and becoming aware of his body.

Secondly, the patients are given what we would call occupational therapy. Simon is given a sewing kit and has to sew. He has never really done any manual labour before but now has to do it and discovers what he calls the human beauty of manual labour.

He also gradually makes friends with other patients. Jérôme becomes his best friend and they go for walks together and have long discussion about who they are, where they are going and about life. It is Jérôme who remarks to him that most men have busy lives and do not take time simply to enjoy life – to smell the roses is the cliché we would use but Gadenne definitely does not.

Eventually, he meets his neighbour, Pondorge. Pondorge is an uneducated working man but Simon is impressed when he mentions some poetry he had heard which Simon cannot place. Pondorge tells him that it is from The Divine Comedy and asks if Simon had heard of the book. Simon lends him more works. He makes friends with others, including Kramer, the aggressive Russian, poor Lahoue who dies and Massube, with his sense of humour.

There is a separate women’s unit and the men can often see the women walking outside. Apart from the nurses (whom he does not count), the first woman he meets is Minnie, Madame Charmèdes. He is summoned for an X-ray, in the bowels of the building. When he goes into the waiting room, he sees a young woman, looking out of the window. He hesitates to speak to her and he is then called for his X-ray. He later learns her identity. He thought she was around twenty, but it turns out that she is twenty-five and a widow. She had been a patient but is now a perpendicular, staying on and helping with administrative functions. They become friendly – he is somewhat attracted to her – and he helps her when the patients put on a show later in the book.

Simon is a townie. Living in Paris, he had never really noticed nature. Now, he has the magnificent scenery of the Alps and is very much taken by the landscape. Once he starts getting better, he frequently goes for walks, either alone or with others and is really moved by the Alpine scenery. At one point he says Une immense douceur lui venait de se sentir seul avec la terre [An immense tenderness had him feeling at one with the earth.]

He himself is aware of all these changes. Far from towns, the daily grind, urban comforts and, indeed, civilisation, he feels an awareness he had never felt before and it is this that is important to him.

The most important influence on him, however, is Ariane. In Greek legend, it is Ariadne (Ariane in French) who falls in love with Theseus and helps him to escape the Labyrinth, so presumably her name was not chosen arbitrarily. She, too, is a patient and Simon sees her one day. Out walking he meets her. They become close, fall in love and plan a life together – romantic cottage with a garden and so on. It is she as much as nature, friends, awareness, absence from urban life and the joys of manual labour, that changes his life and makes him a different man.

The obvious comparison, as mentioned above, is with Thomas Mann‘s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). Both are very long (this novel is around 700 pages) and both are set mainly in a sanatorium. Tuberculosis has been used as a metaphor in many works of art and not just novels. It was often used as a metaphor, as it was by Mann both in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) and Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice). In her interesting book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag takes up this idea of using illnesses, such as tuberculosis, cancer and, recently, AIDS and basically says we should not do so.

That Mann uses it as a metaphor, is one of the many ways Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) differs from this book. Gadenne himself suffered from tuberculosis and was in a sanatorium and he is using his own experience as a basis. What is important to him is not the idea of tuberculosis as a metaphor but the idea that a man – Gadenne himself, Simon – can change when taken away from his own habitual environment and placed in another one, far from the urban world he is used to. Simon changes in many ways, as I have shown, and, in his own eyes, is clearly the better man for it.

While perhaps a bit too long, Gadenne is a superb writer and shows the gradual changes to Simon, the somewhat effete, urban student in an intelligent and well-written way. Sadly, none of Gadenne’s work has been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published 1941 by Gallimard
No English translation
First published in German as Die Augen wurden ihm aufgetan by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt in 1952