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 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.”

The most revealing entry in the Journal while Jules was alive had nothing to do with literary, social, or political history. In the summer of 1862, their housekeeper and nursemaid, Rose, who had also served their mother, fell ill with pleurisy. As usual when describing a person’s sickness and decline, the brothers found some beautiful phrases:

A human being sheds its leaves like a tree. Sickness prunes it down; and it no longer offers the same silhouette to the eyes which loved it, to the people to whom it afforded shade and comfort.

When Rose died, they felt that a part of them had been torn away. It was as though a “gruff and solicitous” family watchdog or a favorite piece of furniture had disappeared:

This is a great rent in our lives, a great change which somehow seems to us one of those solemn ruptures in existence when, as Byron puts it, the Fates change horses.

But with the sorrow of her death came a terrible revelation. Four days later, their shared mistress, Maria, grew tired of hearing them sing the praises of the faithful servant and told them all about Rose’s secret life. She had paid young men to be her lovers and indulged in “dreadful orgies.” She stole money from her employers and drank to drown her remorse.

The brothers whose diary came to be seen as one of the most revealing records of late-nineteenth-century life had shared a house for almost twenty-five years with a woman whose daily existence was a complete mystery to them. They had even missed her pregnancy:

When, a few years ago, she told us she was going into hospital, it was to have a child. And her love for all these men was so sickly, excessive, and overwhelming that she, who was the very soul of honesty, robbed us, yes, robbed us of a twenty-franc piece out of every hundred francs, and all in order to keep her lovers and pay for their sprees.

At the time, Edmond and Jules expressed their disappointment in a childish generalization, as though a valuable lesson had been learned:

Suspicion of the entire female sex has entered into our minds for the rest of our lives: a horror of the duplicity of woman’s soul, of her prodigious gift, her consummate genius for mendacity.

Yet they themselves had a “prodigious gift” for not noticing what was going on around them. Ironically, this was one of their great assets as diarists. A man who had known about his housekeeper’s crimes and guessed her secrets, who understood her tragedy, would have been less likely to investigate what he saw as the hidden life of his time. He might have been an aphorist or a social philosopher but not a habitual recorder of all the trivial clues that others might dismiss as the detritus of daily life. The best diarist is not necessarily the most observant but the one who most wants to be observant, the inquisitive innocent who explores the zones of ignorance that surround his well-regulated existence, just as the Goncourts bravely collected “documents” for their novels in the vast slum-suburbs of Haussmann’s Paris.

Unlike the omniscient narrators of their documentary fiction, the Goncourts never rise far enough above their subjects to become drearily objective. They never allow a flattering, fictionalized version of themselves to assume the duties of the diarist. In all the conversations they report, they rarely have the last or the wittiest word. With their constant vexations and bathetic surprises, Edmond and Jules are their own best comic characters—perpetually bemused by their obsessions, peering in at their own lives like voyeurs, and wondering why, in spite of their background and tastes, they write novels about working-class people, and why everyone seems to hate them. Their autobiographical sketches are nearly always ridiculous or sad. A prostitute tells one of them, “You look like a little boy staring at a jam sandwich.” Edmond returns from shopping trips only to find that his purchases look “inferior and incomplete.” Their plays fail and their novels disappoint. “From the heights of pleasure we have fallen back into the depths of boredom. We are badly organized and easily tired.”

Their own vision of the world and their ability to express it are constantly called into question:

We are like a man accustomed to drawing from a wax dummy who has suddenly been presented with a living model, or rather life itself with its entrails warm and active, its guts palpitating.

This is why Edmond’s episodic observations of the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune are so compelling. He never claims to have grasped the whole picture and never tries to mask his ignorance with patriotic indignation. Many of his “snapshots” are reminiscent of the odd perspectives and obscured vision of a painting by Manet: he sees people and events from a distance, through a cab window, a gap in a fence, or the iron grating at the bottom of his garden. He never grants himself the moral immunity of a conventional historian. In May 1871, while government troops were recapturing Paris from the incendiary Communards, he stood at the window, looking out “at that black night of Paris” and its “deep, fearful darkness,” “listening to the heart-rending cries of a wounded infantryman who had dragged himself up to our door and whom the concierge, out of a cowardly fear of compromising herself, refused to let in.”

This self-portrait of the diarist doing nothing to help a frantic soldier says more about the complex humiliations visited on Parisians in 1871 than most other accounts of the same events. Even after they moved to a house with a garden in the genteel suburb of Auteuil, the Goncourts were never comfortably detached from their subjects. They were compromised by what they saw and recorded. In the following passage, written in 1869, the diarist in the omnibus is also one of those watchful, predatory men who made the city such a dangerous place for a naive provincial:

Sat in an omnibus next to a little peasant girl who looked as if she had just arrived in Paris to go into service. It was impossible for her to sit still. Try as she might to appear unconcerned, to keep her arms folded in perfect immobility, she seemed to feel a sort of restless embarrassment in this huge, overwhelming city, a shy, agitated disquiet mingled with a curiosity which made her turn her head time and again to look out of the window behind. A little dumpling in a white bonnet. Like a goat rubbing itself against a post, or as if she were still carrying some of the fleas of her native province, she kept straightening herself against the back of her seat, shifting haunches that were already soft and lascivious and ready to slip into the limp routine of a Parisian streetwalker.

For all his self-criticism, Edmond knew his worth as a chronicler, and his assurances to friends and interviewers that he never deliberately altered the truth were obviously sincere. “We were temperamental, neurotic, unhealthily impressionable creatures, and therefore occasionally unjust,” he wrote in the preface to the first published volume. “Nevertheless…we have never consciously lied about those of whom we speak.” His increasingly tetchy complaints about his fellow historians were inspired by a conviction that the historian’s own foibles were a vital part of the whole picture. When Hippolyte Taine begged him “not to quote any of his opinions or observations on anything whatever,” Edmond called him “a poltroon, a coward and a chicken”:

Oh yes, it annoys these Academicians to have their humanity exposed to the public gaze…. Dammit all, they would like to go on being little tin gods, but they are not going to have their way.

The Goncourts’ relentless self-revelation was probably one of the main reasons for the bitter attacks on their Journal. A typical example appeared on the front page of the Figaro newspaper on June 14, 1896, a month and two days before Edmond’s death. (Edmond was a regular reader of the Figaro.) His friend’s brother, Ernest Daudet, accused the Goncourts of betraying their friends and ignoring “the necessary cordiality of social relations.” He called them obsessive, vacuous, and vain, and suggested that their minute, repetitive portrayal of a tiny circle of friends was a symptom of mental illness. However, he did not doubt Edmond’s “sincerity” and “thirst for the truth.”

Honesty is the most admirable and discomforting aspect of the Journal. The Goncourts made no secret of their own cowardice, snobbishness, prurience, and spite. The result was an unflattering autobiography spanning almost half a century. It was the self-portrait of a writer who prides himself on his independent mind and who shares the prejudices of his age—especially anti-Semitism and misogyny. It showed an ambitious man who craves friendship and takes pleasure in his friends’ humiliations, and who dawdles and procrastinates on his way to see a dying friend; an art-lover who likes to think that he lives on a higher plane and whose life is poisoned for weeks on end by a solicitor’s snooty letter, the memory of an imagined slight, or the sound of his neighbors’ dogs, children, and piano; a scholar whose labors call for rigid self-discipline and whose smallest indulgences turn into stubborn addictions; an intellectual whose normal state of mind is mild boredom occasionally relieved by lust and irritation.

It was, in other words, a portrait in which any reader could recognize something of himself. In the Journal, the Goncourts realized the ambition of the Naturalist novel: to depict an average man of flesh and bone, defined by breeding, environment, and circumstance, whose actions are determined as much by the weather and his state of health as by his principles. Like their friend Flaubert, they knew how to convey “the botheration of existence,”1 the sense of failure inherent in any artistic project, and the inescapable smallness of every motive. As old age approached, Edmond saw his ideals reduced to a dream of simple happiness—a well-appointed apartment and a childless neighbor with no musical instruments and a goldfish for a pet. Even the achievements that now seem to have been the Goncourts’ lasting gift to literature—the Journal and the Académie Goncourt—were merely, in Edmond’s mind, the satisfaction of a selfish desire: “Only that which contributes to the survival of my personality can afford me a little pleasure”; “My constant preoccupation is to save the name of Goncourt from oblivion in the future by every sort of survival: survival through works of literature, survival through foundations, survival through the application of my monogram to all the objets d’art which have belonged to my brother and myself.”

The Journal is a treasure, not because the Goncourts knew a lot of famous people or because they were always on hand when history was being made, but because they knew how to gloat over the shimmering surface of things, to appreciate the slightest gesture or the smallest piece of gossip. As the narrator of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu discovers when he reads some pages of the Goncourts’ Journal, it “teaches us to place a higher value on life.”2 Jules and Edmond were connoisseurs who created a demand for facts and objects that had once seemed insignificant. Without them, late-nineteenth-century Paris would seem more empty and remote. They crammed their Journal with genuine fragments of daily life that no one else would have bothered to collect. When one of the century’s great events was taking place—the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889, where hundreds of reporters were describing the same exhibits and taking photographs of the same crowd scenes—Edmond de Goncourt stayed at home, arranged his nest like a novelist planning a scene, and recorded the precious moment in his diary:

In front of me, a plate of strawberries. Beside the plate, in a rock-crystal flask, a Richardson rosebud, yellow edged with white. Upstairs, awaiting me in my darkened bedroom, a glass of Martell brandy and my bed turned down for a siesta of light and hazy slumbers. And, deep inside me, a feeling of inexpressible scorn for all that trundling activity going on outside—the cabs, the omnibuses, the drays, the trams, and the carts, taking people to the Exhibition.

This Issue

February 15, 2007