Monað modes lust mæla gehÆ¿ylce ferð to feran.

Brazilians in the Belle Epoque

Pages from the Goncourt Journals (New York Review Books Classics) - 'Edmond de Goncourt',  'Jules de Goncourt'

Hands-down the most entertaining book I've read all year. You need this in your life if you have any interest at all in French literature, the life of the mind, the creative process, or Gallic bitching on a monumental scale. Especially the last one.

Every page, and I mean every page, of this book contains one or more of the following:

1. A perfectly-polished aphorism;
2. An astonishing anecdote about a famous writer, or painter, or member of royalty;
3. A worm's-eye view of some major historical event;
4. A jaw-dropping insight into the ubiquity of nineteenth-century misogyny

…or all four. The nature of the Goncourts' social circle means that even the most Twitter-like entry of daily banality becomes interesting (‘A ring at the door. It was Flaubert’), but more to the point there is so much here of the real life that never found its way into the fiction of the time. Reading this feels like finally finding out what all those characters in nineteenth-century novels, with their contrived misunderstandings and drawing-room spats, were really thinking about – the salacious concerns that lie behind all the printable novelistic metaphors. When the Goncourts and their famous friends get together for a chat, instead of just talking about who batted their eyelashes at whom last night, they are more likely to wax lyrical about

the strange and unique beauty of the face of any woman – even the commonest whore – who reaches her climax: the indefinable look which comes into her eyes, the delicate character which her features take on, the angelic, almost sacred expression which one sees on the faces of the dying and which suddenly appears on hers at the moment of the little death.

la singulière et originale beauté du visage de toute femme qui jouit—même chez la dernière gadoue—, de ce je ne sais quoi qui vient à ses yeux, de cet affiné que prennent les lignes de sa figure, de l'angélique qui y monte, du caractère presque sacré que revêt le visage des mourants qui s'y voit soudain sous l'apparence de la « petite mort ».

(An idea expressed in almost identical terms, incidentally, more than 150 years later in Nicholson Baker's The Fermata.) Or about their aversion to the ‘oriental practice’ of women shaving their pubic hair:

‘It must look like a priest's chin,’ said Saint-Victor.

It is all amazing stuff. The Goncourts are alert to the best gossip, the most entertaining and revealing anecdotes; their keen sense that they are underappreciated geniuses drives a lot of their observations of the people around them who are (as they see it) getting the success that they, the Goncourts, deserve. This is lucky for us, because it keeps them deeply interested in the artists around them to the very end.

The most prominent of these is Zola, who first pops up in the journals as an unknown fan. His prodigious work ethic and knack for publicity soon means that he is getting all the glory, and all the money, of being the leader of the new ‘Naturalist’ movement. The Goncourts reckon, not without some reason, that he lifted most of his best ideas from them, and they duly note down all the examples they can find. But they're impressed despite themselves at how good he is with the press; as Zola cheerfully confesses,

‘I have a certain taste for charlatanism…I consider the word Naturalism as ridiculous as you do, but I shall go on repeating it over and over again, because you have to give new things new names for the public to think that they are new...’

The attitude of all concerned towards women is shocking, especially in the early years (Edmond does mature quite a lot towards the end, benefitting from a close and gossipy friendship with Princess Mathilde Bonaparte that was clearly very important to him). The women that get discussed tend to be gaupes ‘trollops’, gueuses ‘sluts’ or gadoues ‘whores’; sometimes translator Robert Baldick even renders filles ‘girls’ as ‘tarts’, which, given the tone, is not unreasonable. The brothers confess somewhere that neither of them has really been in love for more than a few days at a time, and their deepest emotion is always reserved for each other. Edmond's description of his brother's eventual death from syphilis is heart-breaking: ‘This morning he was unable to remember a single title among the books he has written.’

And death does loom pretty large over parts of the journal, which covers such upheavals as the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the suppression of the Commune – but the Goncourts' eye is always on individual responses, picturesque incident, personal idiosyncrasies.

Neither of them ever marries, although Edmond thinks about it a few times after his brother has gone. He tries to let down gently the few women that approach him. Eventually, in a passage that's somehow both creepy and moving, he confides that he's never really got over his first erotic experience as a young boy, when he was staying in his cousin's house:

One morning […] I went into their bedroom without knocking. And I went in just as my cousin, her head thrown back, her knees up, her legs apart and her bottom raised on a pillow, was on the point of being impaled [enfourchée] by her husband. There was a swift movement of the two bodies, in which my cousin's pink bottom disappeared so quickly beneath the sheets that I might have thought it had been a hallucination…. But the vision remained with me. And until I met Mme Charles, that pink bottom on a pillow with a scalloped border was the sweet, exciting image that appeared to me every night, before I went to sleep, beneath my closed eyelids.

The Journal amounts to an argument that what matters in life is sex, death and literature – only the characters illustrating this are not fictional creations but rather Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, Degas, Barbey d'Aurevilley, Huysmans, Dumas, Oscar Wilde, Swinburne, and Turgenev. It's not only glorious and life-affirming, it's also very moving because even while Edmond rages against how his literary works have been overlooked, the reader is increasingly aware that this journal is going to be everything that they hoped for their novels, and more.

A book is never a masterpiece: it becomes one. Genius is the talent of a dead man.

A talent they obviously had. I would rather read half a page of the Goncourts on Zola than a hundred pages of Zola himself. Indeed right now I feel I'd rather read half a page of the Goncourts on anything than almost anything else.

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