Soon I will be in France. Thus some rummaging in Pages from the Goncourt Journals, the 1962 Robert Baldick edition of the enormous journals of brothers and novelists Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. I have no idea what or how much Baldick omitted. About 40% of this book, covering 1851 through 1870, is written by “we,” until Jules becomes too ill to continue and the journals belong to Edmond alone. Jules dies; Edmond lives until 1896, the journal ending just twelve days before his death.
I have never read a Goncourt novel, although they sound like the kind of thing I like. I don’t know how much they are read anymore, in France, I mean. I just read the journals, abridged. What is in them?
1. Gossip, literary gossip. The Goncourts knew almost everyone in French literature, over the course of a couple of generations of writers. Going by the number of entries in the index, they spend the most time with, or at least writing about:
And scores of others in cameo appearances – Turgenev, Degas, Sand, Dumas father and son, Huysmans, Mallarmé, Manet, Verlaine, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Swinburne. A number of people on whom Proust characters are considered to be “based,” whatever that means. They never met or mention Rimbaud or Corbière, but otherwise I think they knew everyone I had ever heard of.
That, in fact, is Saint-Beuve’s greatest and perhaps only conversational skill – savage criticism in the guise of support. He is a master of the art of poisoning with praise. (11 April, 1864)
Maybe a little self-description there. The Goncourts make everyone look awful, including themselves. No, Turgenev comes out all right. Otherwise, the book is a chronicle of backbiting, jealousies, pointless feuds, and highly incisive and accurate insults. Readers who insist on liking writers, personally liking them, should retain their illusions and avoid the journals.
2. Literary insight. Many of these writers held regular salons and dinners. They often talked shop, perhaps especially while Flaubert was in attendance. They – well, he, Flaubert – said all sorts of brilliant things about the art of fiction, or at least Flaubert’s fiction, that the Goncourts wrote down. They have some insights of their own, too. All of this has been plundered by later critics and biographers.
Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet. A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.
We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language. (14 April, 1874)
Deep, deep insights.
3. Paris. Literary Paris, ordinary Paris, the streets, the theaters. It’s a great Paris book. Goncourt is superb on the Prussian war, the Siege of Paris, and the uprising of the Commune. This is Edmond – the previous year of the journal is a moving account of the degeneration and death of Jules. It is a tragic sequence – illness, death, grief, then the long list of shocks and horrors of the war – and also a fine piece of writing.
Three major topics and two days left before I leave for France. That ought to do it. I believe this book qualifies for Dolce Bellezza’s Paris in July event.