If you spend as much time as I do mentally visiting 19th century Paris, you can’t escape the Goncourts. I had read two of their novels, Germinie Lacerteux and Manette Salomon, but only in connection with my own novel about van Gogh. (He portrayed Dr. Gachet with copies of those books.) As novelists, these guys are really heavy sledding. Making a tale of secret nymphomania dull is quite an achievement. So I was a little apprehensive about even the excerpted Journals but felt I could no longer avoid them, what with my interest in the Siege of Paris and the Commune.
Well! Who knew! The stilted prose is gone, the reaching for effect nowhere to be found, and in their place a lively, aphoristic, panorama of life among the likes of Flaubert, Zola, Daudet, Maupassant, etc. etc. Of course part of the fascination with the Goncourts is the unanswerable question of who wrote what, but since Jules died in 1870, it’s Edmond’s character that emerges. He was not a nice man — but his envy, his schadenfreude, his dreadful political opinions make the journals all the more interesting to read. I especially enjoyed the jockeying between him and Zola: Goncourt believed to his dying day that he invented Naturalist literature and that Zola merely did better at publicizing it. Fascinating how the conditions of modern publishing have changed very little. Zola created a media hook by linking his books in the immense Rougon-Macquart cycle, and he worked as hard as his journalism as he did at his fiction, providing what we would call a “platform.” Goncourt, who didn’t need to earn his keep, was always classed as a dilettante despite the fact that he produced 40 volumes on different topics over his lifetime.
He seems surprised, in the 1890s, at how furious his friends are when he publishes the Journals. He says he was “led by my love of the truth and desire for sincerity to be perhaps unconsciously indiscreet…” “Love of truth” is always the justification of the habitually malicious.
But he had a wonderful eye and a sometimes delicious sense of whimsy, as when he talks about giving a marmoset to a prostitute: “It seemed to me that she was bound to like monkeys.” Wonderful moment when he and friends dine on the upper platform of the spanking-new Eiffel Tower in 1889, gazing at the panorama of the city he adores. Marvelous everyday stuff, of the sort that Walter Benjamin adored, as when he mentions society women listening to racy songs “without the protection of a fan.”
Best entry: “How strange and peculiar nervous diseases are! Vaucorbeil the composer, has a horror of velvet, and suffers absolute agony whenever he is invited somewhere for the first time, wondering whether the dining-room chairs are covered in velvet.”
Let’s just hope there will be a mechanism whereby scholars and students can, 150 years from now, rummage through our blogs for gems like that!