Book review: Man walks away and into dawn of psychiatry in 19th-century Europe

March 24

The Germans call it wanderlust. Don Quixote called it knight-errancy. Kipling called it roguing and ranging. A whole genre of literature sprang from the call of the road and the lure of adventure. Think “Robinson Crusoe” or “Treasure Island” or even “Lord Jim.”

Now, imagine a man who travels day after day, relentlessly, not because he wants to or because he is paid to, but because he absolutely has to: because roads are his master, and he their slave. This is what psychiatrists call “dromomania,” ambulatory somnambulism — the traveling fugue. The patient who brought that condition to full clinical light, the most notorious dromomaniac in history, was Jean-Albert Dadas, a gas-fitter who deserted the French army in 1881 and criss-crossed Europe in a trance for five years, making his way on foot to Berlin, Prague, Moscow, even Constantinople.

He had no memory of it.

In 1886, this “pathological tourist,” as he became known, was admitted to a little hospital in Bordeaux. Diagnosed with exhaustion and acute disorientation, he was treated by Philippe Tissié, a young psychiatrist who would write his thesis on Dadas and make the disorder world famous.

Maud Casey tells of this patient and doctor in her rhapsodic “The Man Who Walked Away,” a novel set at the dawn of psychiatry, when Sigmund Freud, Georges Gilles de la Tourette, Alfred Binet and the young Tissié were gathering in Paris to study under the great neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Although it names no names, Casey’s book is a vivid chronicle of the time, bringing alive the mysteries and joys of a fledgling science.

Casey is no newcomer to the psychological novel. Her first book, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was a quirky narrative about a woman who goes home to her little midwestern town and gradually becomes unhinged. Her second novel, “Genealogy,” is about a family that suffers a string of bizarre, emotional fractures until its teenage heroine lands in a psychiatric hospital. Her short story collection, “Drastic,” is replete with tales about obsession, mental illness, modern-day wayfarers, and crises of love and loss.

“The Man Who Walked Away,” on the other hand, takes a headlong plunge into history. Shucking the theme of contemporary angst, Casey evokes — with no shortage of verve and gusto — the romance of 19th-century Europe, when madness plagued more than asylums, and nomadism acquired an allure it had never had. The result is a novel of a very different stripe.

Based on letters and journals of the time, Casey’s “Man Who Walked Away” has the distinct timbre of a bygone era. Here are Philippe Tissié’s words, taken from his seminal “Les Aliénés Voyageurs”: “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.”

And here is Casey’s incantatory impression of 19th-century narration: “When Albert walked along the paths to forges; when he walked the tracks to mines and quarries; when he walked the causeways from village to farm to town to city; when he walked along the trails to market for glassmakers and the merchants of salt, flax, hemp, linen, and yarn; when he walked along the administrative highways; when he passed recruits and vagabonds, rag-and-bone merchants and chimney sweeps; when he walked along pilgrimage routes to miraculous fountains or the chapel of a healing saint; when he walked past men shouldering their dead along roads overgrown with tall grass to the cemetery; whenever he walked, he was filled with a wonder so fierce it was as if he were being burned alive from its astonishing beauty.”

The result is a highly stylized, somewhat fitful story and, so, will not be to everyone’s taste. Albert’s psychiatrist is woodenly known as Doctor; the clinic’s head is Director; the formidable Charcot is “the great doctor,” and so on. All the same, there is a strangely mesmerizing quality to Casey’s odd narration. She constructs a world inside the Doctor’s clinic, bringing each internee, each insanity alive with such tenderness that Albert’s arrival in that eccentric circle is all the more real.

As Casey leaps back and forth from Albert’s chaotic peregrinations to the hyper-orderly rituals of the Doctor, we see the difference between a man who is suffering from an impulse control disorder and one who is perhaps a little too much in control. One seems quite as unbalanced as the other. But in this author’s hands, the fundamental apposition between patient and physician — as forceful as between magnetic poles — eventually creates an irresistible attraction. Albert and Doctor are made for each other, they are absolute antipodes, and a yin-yang congruity makes them whole. “The Man Who Walked Away” is as compelling a portrait as you will find of the co-dependence between psychiatrist and patient.

Perhaps most satisfying about this novel, though, is its author’s attention to the era. Here is France in the heyday of “pathological tourism,” a time when the public was so taken by Dadas’s story that the vagabond neurosis became all the rage. Cyclists, “les marcheurs qui roulent” (a phrase sadly mangled in the novel), take off down country roads. Baedekers abound. The French are obsessed with locomotion. The adventure novel is in high vogue.

Little did they imagine how peripatetic this world could be.

Arana is the former editor in chief of Book World and the author of numerous books, among them “Bolivar: American Liberator.”

THE MAN WHO WALKED AWAY

By Maud Casey

Bloomsbury. 233 pp. $25

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