Succès de scandale
Their novels might be unreadable and forgotten, but the Goncourt brothers' journals - to which they confided all their thwarted ambition, literary gossip and backbiting - are a delight, discovers Geoff Dyer
The Guardian, Saturday 9 December 2006
Among many other things the Journal is a vast archive of anxiety and thwarted ambition. The brothers Goncourt began keeping it on what was, for them, a momentous occasion: the publication, on December 2 1851, of their first novel. Unfortunately, it was also a momentous day for France: Napoleon III seized power in a coup d'état. With the city under martial law their eagerly- anticipated debut made almost no impact. So the Journal became a repository of all the woes and disappointed hopes suffered in their "hard and horrible struggle against anonymity": critical indignities, lack of sales, the perfidy of reviewers, the unmerited success of friends (some of whom, like Zola, were celebrated for techniques the Goncourts claimed to have pioneered).
As happens, lack of success only increased the brothers' sense of neglected worth. "It is impossible to read a page by them," André Gide confided in his journal, "where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines." He was referring to their novels (now almost entirely forgotten) but this sense of wounded self-esteem greatly increases the pleasure of the Journal for which they are remembered. "Oh, if one of Dostoevsky's novels, whose black melancholy is regarded with such indulgent admiration, were signed with the name of Goncourt, what a slating it would get all along the line." That's in 1888; by 1890 the tone is of comic resignation (there is much comedy in these pages) as Edmond realises that he has devoted the whole of his life "to a special sort of literature: the sort that brings one trouble".
It's not just the brothers themselves; their friends are constantly sniping about each other's success or bemoaning the lack of their own. Zola, "whose name echoes round the world", is particularly "hard to please." Permanently "dissatisfied with the enormity of his good fortune", he is "unhappier than the most abject of failures".
An abundance of famous names renders the most banal entries compelling. "A ring at the door. It was Flaubert." "Baudelaire was at the table next to ours." Even people who make only a cameo appearance are fixed with a precision to match that of the recently invented camera. The glimpse of Baudelaire continues: "He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were going to be guillotined."
Unlike photographs, these verbal pictures develop and change over time, according to fluctuations in the fortunes and health of the people concerned and their shifting relationships with the authors of the Journal. Part of the ambition behind the project was to show the Goncourts' acquaintances - many of whom happened to be the great writers of the age - "as they really are, in a dressing-gown and slippers". At one point a fellow guest is shocked by Flaubert's "gross, intemperate unbuttoning of his nature" but the reader is grateful that the Goncourts were on hand to witness such things, even when - especially when - the conversation among these men of letters becomes - as it often did - "filthy and depraved."
Among all the talk of fornication, hookers, venereal disease and drunkenness there is some literary discussion too, and not just about "the special aptitude of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea". On first hearing Flaubert read from Salammbo the brothers are disappointed to discover that he "sees the Orient, and what is more the Orient of antiquity, in the guise of an Algerian bazaar. Some of his effects are childish, others ridiculous ... [T]here is nothing more wearisome than the everlasting descriptions, the button-by-button portrayal of the characters, the miniature-like representation of every costume." The brothers are often vehement participants in debate - blasphemously insisting that "Hugo has more talent than Homer" - but much of the time they are eager flies on a wall, conscious of the privilege of witnessing a master like Flaubert as he illuminates what, to him, is truly shocking about the author of Justine: "there isn't a single tree in Sade, or a single animal."
By the time they meet the author of Madame Bovary he is already a celebrated writer, already "Flaubert". Others, like the "strange painter Degas", enter inconspicuously with none of the aura subsequently bestowed upon them by fame. When they first encounter their "admirer and pupil Zola" he strikes them as a "worn-out Normalien, at once sturdy and puny" but with "a vibrant note of pungent determination and furious energy".
Many people come strolling through the Journal but one young man who went on to distinguish himself in the world of letters does not appear to merit so much as a mention. When Henry James met Edmond ("and his dirty little companions") in 1885 he was struck by "something perverse & disagreeable" about him. Expanding on this in an interminable review of the Journal, James is baffled by the way that the "weakness" of these "furious névrosés" "appears to them a source of glory or even of dolorous general interest". The fact that they do not appear anything like so sickly or neurotic to us is proof of a sort that the Goncourts were right: their malaise was indeed proof of their modernity. The self-styled "John-the-Baptists of modern neurosis" prided themselves on being "the first to write about the nerves".
The atmosphere of metaphysical sickness is clearly related to the dark shadow cast by actual physical illness. In 1861 the death of their friend Henri Murger had prompted an agonised reflection on mortality. The unnamed illness that killed Murger was mysterious and rare; syphilis was so pervasive that in 1877 Maupassant, initially, was "proud" to have caught "the magnificent pox. At last!" By then Edmond had had seven years to mourn the utterly unmagnificent death, also from syphilis, of his beloved brother. Jules's passing made Edmond "curse and abominate literature" to such an extent that, after describing with clinical precision and agonising detail the gradual collapse of his brother's physical and mental capacities, he decided to abandon the Journal.
The habit of daily transcription was not so easy to break, however, and Edmond soon returned to the task. With the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris, and the commune, history comes crashing in on the daily accounts of visits, incidental observations and reflections. The entries from the post-Jules period are as varied, fascinating, compelling and odd as anything that has gone before. (I am particularly fond of the passage describing "the mania for fighting" which so takes hold of Drumont that "Nature is nothing for him now but a setting for affairs of honour. When he took the lease on his house at Soisy, he exclaimed: 'Ah, now there's a real garden for a pistol duel.'") But these later sections are interesting in two additional and complicating ways.
As early as 1867 the brothers had reflected on the transience of all pleasures: "Everything is unique, nothing happens more than once in a lifetime. The physical pleasure which a certain woman gave you at a certain moment, the exquisite dish which you ate on a certain day - you will never meet either again. Nothing is repeated, and everything is unparalleled." Naturally, this affirmation of the unrepeatable uniqueness of all experience - especially once his brother is no longer there to share, record and analyse it with Edmond - encourages recollection and reverie. As Edmond ages so he becomes more and more absorbed by memory.
The second factor in the distinctive quality of the latter parts of the Journal derives from the fact that in 1886-7, after much reluctance, Edmund begins publishing them. As a consequence the diaries from that date onwards have to come to terms with how the earlier ones have been received - both by the critics and by the people mentioned, described or quoted in them. The Journal, in other words, starts being about itself.
Plenty of people felt embarrassed, upset, outraged or betrayed by the Goncourts' record of things they had said or had said about them. This is part of the Journal's charm and value. Christopher Isherwood, when he finished reading them, on July 5 1940, was in no doubt as to their importance in this regard: "Here, gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry. To keep such a diary is to render a real service to the future." This realisation may well have been an incentive to persist with his diaries which have since acquired a similar value of their own. Or, to put it another way, it is as if the Journal, which caused people to discuss - and thereby add to - their content, continues to prompt the same reaction and so, in a sense, are still being incrementally extended by a constantly expanding cast of characters, readers and contributors, from the 19th century to Gide, Isherwood, Vidal and beyond.
Obviously, the Goncourts' Journal has been a wonderful resource for historians and biographers alike, but not everyone has concurred with the verdict of Proust's narrator in Time Regained: "Goncourt knew how to listen, just as he knew how to see." Coming as it does from a work in which fiction and fact are famously and intimately entwined, this character reference is itself unreliable and inadmissible. Certainly it is contested by a conversation recorded by Gide in a journal entry from January 1902: "'According to what I have been able to verify,' says Jacques Blanche, 'nothing is less true than their journals.'" Claiming to remember perfectly certain conversations which the Goncourts had falsified Blanche flatly contradicts Proust: "I assure you, Gide, that they didn't know how to listen."
Blanche rants on, furnishing more and more examples, only to have the rug pulled from beneath his feet by the author of The Counterfeiters. "'But', I say, 'the words that he puts into the mouths of various people, however false they may be according to you, are almost never uninteresting. Watch out, for the more you reduce his stature as a stenographer, the greater you make him as a writer, as a creator.'"
We only have Gide's word that he had the last word in this exchange way but it reminds us that what we are dealing with here is not simply a resource but a compendious work of literature. "A book is never a masterpiece," the brothers declare in 1864. "It becomes one." The process of becoming is inevitably more awkward for a journal - which did not even set out to be a book; its imperfections and indiscretions, its lack of artistic and thematic organisation - all the things, in fact, that make it a pleasure to read - militate against its ever becoming one. But while Sainte-Beuve - a major player in these pages - believed his notebooks to be "the lowest drawer of the writing desk" the Goncourts' Journal has come to deserve a place in the highest.
· Pages from the Goncourt Journals has just been reissued by New York Review of Books Classics.
Masters of Indiscretion
By ADAM KIRSCH | November 29, 2006 / http://www.nysun.com/arts/masters-of-indiscretion/44314/
Pages from the Goncourt Journals
by Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt
In every generation, one city emerges as the capital of the republic of letters. This is not necessarily the place where the best writing is being done: Masterpieces are just as likely to come from Jane Austen's Hampshire parsonage as from Dr. Johnson's London coffeehouse. It is, rather, a symbolic homeland of the imagination, a metropolis that sets the terms of critical judgment and literary debate. Such capitals are inevitably temporary, passing away as history and chance assemble other geniuses in other places. But long after they disappear, they retain a peculiar power to seduce the imagination. How many readers have wished they could talk with Goethe and Schiller at Weimar, or go to Greenwich Village parties with Hart Crane and Edmund Wilson?
Of all the cities that have served as literature's capital, none is more famous or infamous than the Paris of the Second Empire; and no writers deserve more credit for its legend than the Goncourt brothers. Edmond de Goncourt, born in 1822, and his younger brother Jules, born in 1830, formed a partnership that is possibly unique in literary history. Not only did they write all their books together, they did not spend more than a day apart in their adult lives, until they were finally parted by Jules's death in 1870.
The Goncourts wrote prolifically in every genre, but they never had the kind of success they so desperately wanted. They were less admired than Flaubert, though they shared his devotion to style, and less popular than Zola, though they pioneered the techniques of naturalism. Their plays flopped, while Alexandre Dumas got rich from "La Dame aux Camélias." Their works on history and art were overlooked, as Hippolyte Taine and Ernest Renan became intellectual demigods. By the time he reached his 60s, Edmond was frantic to do something, anything, to secure his reputation: "My constant preoccupation," he wrote, "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."
As it turned out, however, it was none of these things that rescued the Goncourts from "oblivion." It was, rather, their Journals — the scandalous, vain, vengeful, brutally honest diaries in which the two brothers, and then Edmond alone, wrote the secret history of their age. Starting in 1851, the year their first novel was published, and ending just twelve days before Edmond's death in 1896, the Goncourt Journals helped to immortalize their period as well as their authors. If we are still fascinated by the literary life of Paris in the late 19th century — not just the books but the personalities, the rivalries and friendships, the piquant combination of idealism and brutishness — we have the Goncourts to thank.
Both the idealism and the brutishness are on full display in "Pages from the Goncourt Journals" (New York Review Books, 434 pages, $16.95), a one-volume selection edited by the late scholar and translator Robert Baldick. This edition, which first appeared in 1962,is the latest of many delightful books brought back into print by New York Review Books, whose imprimatur has become a reliable guarantee of reading pleasure. In this case, the pleasure is decidedly of the guilty variety.
The Goncourts belonged to a world where poets mingled with princesses, politicians, and prostitutes, and they faithfully reported gossip from all levels of society, the more lurid the better. Indeed, the most representative sentence in the Journals may be the one that begins the entry for September 25, 1886: "This morning in the garden we talked about copulation." It was a subject that never got boring. A friend of a friend had a mistress who claimed to have slept with Kaiser Wilhelm II: "She had orders to wait for him naked, stark naked except for a pair of long black gloves coming up above her elbows; he came to her similarly naked, with his arms tied together ... and after looking at her for a moment, hurled himself upon her, throwing her onto the floor and taking his pleasure with her in a bestial frenzy."
Swinburne, the English poet, would entertain visitors with "a collection of obscene photographs ... all life-size and all of male subjects." Zola had a second family that he hid from his wife; Turgenev lost his virginity to one of his serfs at the age of 12. Robert de Montesquiou, the aesthete who was the original of Proust's Charlus, had his first love affair "with a female ventriloquist who, while Montesquiou was straining to achieve his climax, would imitate the drunken voice of a pimp, threatening the aristocratic client."
Many of these stories seem to fall into the category of "too good to check." But they provide a sense of what conversation must have been like at the famous "diners de Magny," named after the Paris restaurant where the Goncourts, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, and other writers gathered. It was the world's most illustrious locker-room, where lechery was ennobled by worldweary romanticism: "Debauchery," the Goncourts wrote in 1861,"is perhaps an act of despair in the face of infinity."
But the Goncourts' Paris was also an intellectual boxing ring, where no one was ever allowed to forget his place in the standings: whose book had sold best, who had gotten a bad review, whose play was booed on opening night. "Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny's," the Goncourts write (using the first person singular, as always),"my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: ‘I am better than you are,' every literary argument to this: ‘I have more taste than you,' every argument about art to this: ‘I have better eyes than you,' every argument about music to this: ‘I have a finer ear than you.'"
The Goncourts, to their unending frustration, usually wound up at the bottom of the totem pole. They never had the success they thought they deserved, and over the years they became less and less able to tolerate the successes of their friends. It is true that their career was dogged by exceptionally bad luck. The first entry in the journal was made on December 2, 1851, the day the brothers' first novel was published — and also, it so happened, the day that Napoleon III overthrew the Republic and took power as Emperor. As a result, the novel was completely ignored — "a symphony of words and ideas in the midst of that scramble for office," as the brothers ruefully put it.
The Goncourts' next big chance came in 1865, when their groundbreakingly realistic play "Henriette Maréchal" was performed at the Théâtre Français. But once again politics interfered, as protesters drowned the opening-night performance in "a tempest of hisses," angered by the playwrights' friendship with the emperor's cousin. Jules died without ever enjoying a great success, and Edmond spent the rest of his life seething at younger, more talented writers like Zola and Maupassant. The last third of the journal alternates between self-pity ("I am condemned to being attacked and repudiated until the day I die") and jealous digs at friends: "Maupassant's success with loose society women is an indication of their vulgarity," Edmond writes in 1893, "for never have I seen a man of the world with such a red face, such common features, or such a peasant build."
Many writers think things like this about their rivals, but few have dared to record them for posterity. The Goncourts' very shamelessness, their refusal or inability to censor their discreditable thoughts, is what makes their journals so absorbing — as Edmond himself knew full well. In his last years, he began to publish the early volumes of the journals, to the fury of certain friends who found old embarrassments dredged up in print. But he refused to be intimidated: "Monsieur Renan calls me an ‘indiscreet individual,'"Edmond told an interviewer in 1890. "I accept the reproach and I am not ashamed of it... For ever since the world began, the only memoirs of any interest have been written by ‘indiscreet individuals.'" The measure of the Goncourts' indiscretion is that their journals are still so interesting, more than a hundred years later.