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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 allusion to Napoléon I’s coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, the printer threw the advertising posters on the fire. Only sixty copies of the novel were sold.

In the Goncourts’ jaundiced view, this set the pattern for the rest of their lives. Much of their two-million-word Journal is devoted to the bad luck that seemed to dog them, and to their contemporaries’ failure to appreciate their genius and originality. They pioneered realism in the theater but saw their masterpiece, Henriette Maréchal (1865), booed off the stage. Their studies of daily life in the eighteenth century were dismissed as trivial, and their erudite interest in antique knickknacks and Japanese art was mocked as the flippant pastime of wealthy amateurs. Their documentary novels on thorny subjects such as prostitution, hospitals, and psychological abnormalities only seemed to pave the way for their best-selling young disciple, Émile Zola. The Académie Goncourt, which was funded by Edmond’s legacy, was partly an attempt to take posthumous revenge on the literary establishment: the members of the Académie Goncourt, unlike those of the Académie Française, were to be full-time men of letters, not “great lords or politicians” who happened to have published a book. The Académie Goncourt was to award an annual prize for the best prose work by a young writer who showed “bold new tendencies in thought and form”; and it was to publish the Goncourts’ Journal, in which hundreds of people, mostly writers, were revealed in their day-to-day existence.

The manuscript of the Journal consists of eleven notebooks, the first five of which are in Jules’s handwriting. In 1870, Jules died of the effects of tertiary syphilis. After describing in merciless, Poe-esque detail his brother’s terrifying descent into imbecility, Edmond decided to end the Journal. It was to be a monument to their shared existence, “the confession of two lives never separated in pleasure, in work or in pain.” The diary seems to be on the verge of petering out on August 5 with the briefest and saddest of entries: “Whole days spent pacing to and fro in this house, like a soul in torment.” But the very next day, a momentous event sent Edmond back to the diary. The French army was reported, falsely, to have won a great victory over Prussia:

From the Print Room of the Bibliothèque Impériale I saw people running along the Rue Vivienne; I promptly ran after them. The steps of the Stock Exchange, from top to bottom, were a sea of bare heads, with hats flung into the air and every voice raised in a tremendous Marseillaise.

During the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and the Paris Commune, Edmond kept up the diary. By the time peace returned, he had acquired the habit. For the rest of his life, he wrote in the diary, on average, once every two days, usually late at night, when the neighborhood was silent and he could develop his instantanés (“snapshots”) in the dark.

In 1887, Edmond began to publish excerpts of the diary, pruned of offensive and potentially libelous remarks. In this expurgated state, only about two fifths of the Journal remained, which gives a fair idea of the preponderance of obscenities and indiscretions. The last and ninth volume of the Journal des Goncourt: mémoires de la vie littéraire appeared in 1896, the year of Edmond’s death. The complete edition was finally published between 1956 and 1959.

The 6,251 entries of the Journal, “hastily set down on paper,” according to Edmond, “and not always re-read,” are easily the Goncourts’ finest work. Hurrying home to record conversations, with the smells of the brothel or the restaurant still on their clothes, they overcame the crippling attention to rhetorical detail that sometimes makes their novels sound pedantic and contrived. There is little trace in the Journal of the Goncourts’ écriture artiste—a marquetry of neologisms and erudite terms that was supposed to emphasize the novelists’ superiority to their seamy subjects. The chatty, irascible style of the Journal owes more to their journalism, to their love of sketches and photographs, and to all the accidental tableaux of a big city.

The writers who appear most often in the Journal are like characters in a comic strip, released from the machinery of intricate plots, and displaying the same humorous foibles from one week to the next. The Goncourts gathered most of their material during twice-monthly dinners at the Restaurant Magny with, among others, Gustave Flaubert, Théophile Gautier, Ernest Renan, Sainte-Beuve, Hippolyte Taine, and Ivan Turgenev, and at Saint-Gratien, where Princess Mathilde, a cousin of Napoléon III, held a literary salon. Later, Edmond held his own salon at his home on the edge of Paris, where the regulars included Alphonse Daudet and Émile Zola. It hardly matters that so many of the anecdotes are untrue and that some of the “stenographed” (or, rather, memorized) conversations are surely too long to have survived a bibulous dinner and the journey back to the suburbs. In a foreword to this edition, Geoff Dyer quotes André Gide’s retort to Jacques-Émile Blanche, who thought that Edmond de Goncourt must have falsified the conversations he reported: “Watch out, for the more you reduce his stature as a stenographer, the greater you make him as a writer, as a creator.”

The recurrent personalities of the Journal are among the finest comic characters in French literature: George Sand, the “ghostly automaton” who chain-smokes cigarettes and chain-writes novels (“One day she finished a novel at one o’clock in the morning. ‘Good heavens,’ she said, ‘I’ve finished!’ And she promptly started another”); Alexandre Dumas fils, the health-obsessed son of a famous father, who agonizes over half a sentence for a year, “and then his father arrives from Naples and says: ‘Get me a cutlet and I’ll finish your play for you,’ writes the scenario, brings in a whore, borrows some money and goes off again”; Émile Zola, tormented by ambition and bored by his own interminable sequence of novels; Hippolyte Taine, the “pot-bellied clergyman” with a “horrifying” wife, “who looks like a diseased silkworm which a schoolboy has daubed with ink”; and the star of the earlier volumes, the exuberantly friendly Flaubert, who dreams of Babylonian excess and leads a monkish life at Croisset—“he had given instructions to his servant to speak to him only on Sundays, and then only in order to say: ‘Sir, it is Sunday.’”

Some of the critics who accused the Goncourts of belittling their contemporaries were obviously upset by their convincing portrayal of intellectuals. “How little they live, people with lively minds!” Edmond and Jules exclaim. In the Journal, writers do little but write and rewrite. Away from their desks, they get bored, get drunk, tremble at the thought of critical failure and a painful death, talk about reviewers, each other, the existence of God, their daily routines, and erotic adventures, until, at the end of the evening, their wives come to take them home.

The sheer density of anecdotes has made the Journal a favorite source of biographers, but it has far more to offer than literary gossip. The Goncourts set themselves the difficult task of being historians of the present. Their studies of the eighteenth century had shown them how quickly a period disappears from view. Like their hero, Honoré de Balzac, they wanted to provide future generations with a compendium of all the minutiae that were missing from accounts of ancient Rome: “A period for which one has neither a dress sample nor a dinner menu is dead and gone, and cannot be revived.” They knew that incidental details were often the most precious and that too deliberate an attempt to enhance the diary’s historical importance would diminish its lasting value.

Without the Goncourts, we might never have known, for instance, that Paris theater audiences could be just as cruel to child actors as they were to the adult actors, that by 1867, bookshops no longer provided their customers with chairs, or that gaslight shining through the fleur de lys– shaped holes in the metal walls of a urinal created beautiful effects “on the violet paper of a poster advertising a cure for venereal disease.” Thanks to the Goncourts, we know how prostitutes spoke to one another when they didn’t want their clients to understand. We also know, from hundreds of different entries, that the social events that the Goncourts attended, where angry outbursts and tearful confessions seem to have been quite normal, were fueled by absinthe, hashish, opium, and various other stimulants and sedatives, which might account for what Edmond, in a preface to the published Journal, calls “that fever which is the mark of the heady life of Paris.”

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