Treasures of Vanity

Pages from the Goncourt Journals

by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, edited, translated from the French, and with an introduction by Robert Baldick, and with a foreword by Geoff Dyer
New York Review Books, 434 pp., $16.95 (paper)

In 1848, at the age of twenty-six, just after the death of his mother, Edmond Huot de Goncourt (1822–1896) gave up his accounting job at the public revenue department in Paris, and embarked on a new career with his younger brother Jules (1830–1870). Jules had recently passed his baccalauréat. He told a friend of their joint intention: “My mind is made up, and nothing will make me change it…. To use an incorrect but popular expression, I shall do nothing.” The brothers had decided that instead of working for a living, they would become observers and collectors of beautiful things—books, paintings, antiques, aesthetic experiences, and women. This life of seeming idleness was to be funded by an inherited annual income of ten thousand francs (more than eight times Edmond’s salary as an accountant). Their great-grandfather, Antoine Huot, had purchased the lordship and lands of Goncourt, a small village in the Vosges, in 1786, thus enabling his descendants to live in nineteenth-century Paris like aristocrats of the ancien régime.

In fact, Edmond and Jules worked as hard as any impoverished writer. Over the next twenty-two years, they produced seven novels, four plays, two social histories, several biographies of seventeenth-century women, and hundreds of pages of journalism—mostly art criticism, theater reviews, and satirical observations of Parisian life. In those twenty-two years, they spent only two days apart. Despite the difference in age, they behaved like identical twins: they finished each other’s sentences, spoke with the same voice, and suffered from simultaneous migraines. They also kept a diary. Each dictated to the other and revised his brother’s work in such close collaboration that it is impossible to tell whether Edmond or Jules was the author of any particular entry.

The gigantic, gossipy Journal of the Goncourt brothers is one of the longest, most absorbing, and most enlightening diaries in European literature. It was written, says Robert Baldick, out of vanity, “to prove to the whole world that they, the despised aristocratic dilettanti, could work harder and better than their envious Bohemian critics.” Though it covers less than one tenth of the original, Baldick’s skillful and enjoyable translation of selected passages, first published in 1962, gives a good sense of the Journal‘s wittiness and backbiting. It also shows what treasures can be amassed by vanity and hard work.

Appropriately, the first entry in this record of half a century’s literary life recounted a national upheaval and a personal non-event. On December 2, 1851, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the future Napoléon III, conducted a coup d’état. The coup d’état unfortunately coincided with the publication of the brothers’ first novel, En 18..,“a symphony of words and ideas.” As Jules de Goncourt noted pathetically, while the walls of Paris were covered with various posters announcing the coup d’état and naming the ministers of the new government, “one poster…failed to appear.” Afraid that the new authorities would see the title En 18..as a sarcastic …

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