Friday, July 18, 2014

Goncourt in Paris - that reddish, burnt-paper black of present-day crowds

How about some Paris, via the Goncourt journals.  The Universal Exhibition of 1889 is opening!

A mauve sky, which the illuminations filled with something like the glow of an enormous fire – the sound of countless footsteps creating the effect of the rushing of great waters – the crowds all black, that reddish, burnt-paper black of present-day crowds – a sort of intoxication on the faces of the women, many of whom were queuing up outside the lavatories, their bladders bursting with excitement – the Place de la Concorde an apotheosis of white lights, in the middle of which the obelisk shone with the rosy colour of a champagne ice – the Eiffel Tower looking like a beacon left behind on earth by a vanished generation, a generation of men ten cubits tall.  (6 May, 1889).

The strangeness of the Eiffel Tower is certainly hard for me to imagine now.  In the next entry, Goncourt is dining on its platform with “the Zolas, etc.” where “we were afforded a realization, beyond anything imaginable on ground level , of the greatness, the extent, the Babylonian immensity of Paris, with odd buildings glowing in the light of the setting sun with the colour of Roman stone, and among the calm, sweeping lines of the horizon the steep, jagged silhouette of Montmartre looking in the dusty sky like an illuminated ruin.”  (2 July, 1889)

These novelists and their light effects.  Goncourt has become a tourist in his own city.  After this, the passage turns to less pleasant topics, so I will skip all that except for this one magnificent line: “And he [Zola] finished his sentence by squeezing his nose, which in the grip of his sensual fingers took on the appearance of a piece of indiarubber.”

Montmartre presumably looked especially ruinous because of the ongoing, endless, construction of Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the monument to the crushing of the Commune in 1871.  The passages of the Goncourt journals describing the Siege of Paris and the Commune are extraordinary, although the subject does most of the work.  Jules de Goncourt died just before the start of the Prussian War, which was oddly helpful in distracting Edmond from his grief.  He has lost interest in literature, temporarily, but he is intensely interested in his horsemeat ration and the shells crashing around his house.  And if the Siege is bad, the civil war is worse. 

There is smoke everywhere, the air smells of burning and varnish, and on all sides one can hear the hissing of hose-pipes.  In a good many places there are still horrible traces of the fighting: here a dead horse; there, beside the paving-stones from a half-demolished barricade, a peaked cap swimming in a pool of blood…  Behind the burnt-out theatre, the costumes have been spread out on the ground: carbonized silk in which, here and there, one catches sight of the gleam of golden spangles, the sparkle of silver.  (29 May, 1871)

See, the light; novelists cannot help themselves.  One more entry, from a two weeks later.

Dined this evening with Flaubert, whom I had not seen since my brother’s death.  He has come to Paris to find some information for his Tentation de Saint Antoine.  He is still the same, a writer above all else.  This cataclysm seems to have passed over him without distracting him for one moment from the impassive making of books.  (10 June, 1871)

I will be back from France in early August, well-fed and refreshed.


  1. That final fragment has me dying for more Flaubert bits from the journal. Enjoy the holidays, Tom.

  2. When dining with Flaubert, did he notice and comment upon the parrot? (Note: I learned of the parrot via Julian Barnes.)

  3. I would like to think that I knew of these journals before reading this....I'm sure I knew the name of the authors. They sound like very entertaining reading. I will look for them when visiting the used bookstores of Los Angeles later this week.

    No Paris trip for me this summer....

  4. The existence of the Prix Goncourt has made the name of these authors famous without any need to know who they were. Entertaining, yes, very much so. Maybe an edition of the whole thing would become a drag, but not this excerpted version.

    RT - no parrots here. Have you read Flaubert's novella A Simple Heart? Highly recommended to any F.lannery O'Connor fan. I meant that in complete seriousness.