Wednesday, July 16, 2014

He is a master of the art of poisoning with praise - rummaging through the journals of the Goncourt brothers

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:

Émile Zola
Gustave Flaubert
Alphonse Daudet
Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve
Théophile Gautier
Victor Hugo

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.


  1. I always love literary gossip, especially if Flaubert is involved.

  2. Believe this qualifies? I think it takes the cake for Paris in July reading; whom of us bibliophiles don't love juicy bits of gossip (and isn't it always in a negative slant by its very definition?) about such well known authors as these? So glad you brought it to (my) attention. Probably everyone else is quite familiar wit) the Goncourt brothers.

    How wonderful that you're going, and soon! I'm so happy for you, and I look forward to tales of your adventures upon your return. Bon Voyage!

    (Also, I am going to link this post to Tamara's blog where the link ups occur at Thyme For Tea. Thanks for contributing.)

    1. Here is the post to which I added your link:

  3. Always negative - well, you could gossip about someone's anonymous acts of charity. In theory.

    People might be more familiar with the Goncourt journal than they know. Many of the best anecdotes have been extracted and redistributed, into biographies and introductions to Penguin Classics. So they have read a bit of Goncourt without knowing it. The book is like a quotation mine.

    I think I'll extract some of the Flaubert stuff today. So much fun.

  4. Oh what fun! The Goncourts loom large in French literature, or at least they get referred to a lot. I will have to ask my unliterary French coworker if she knows about them. How exciting that you will be off to Paris soon!

  5. Your co-worker may be familiar with the prestigious literary prize funded by the Goncourt estate.

    Maybe I will mention here that this trip will involve Paris as little as is physically possible given that I am using the city's airport.

    1. I asked my coworker. She knew about the prize but she knew nothing about the brothers and had never read them. She said they are not assigned school reading unless, she supposed you are studying French lit.

    2. Assigned reading, now that would have shocked me. I wonder what the youngsters do read?

  6. I've been wanting to read the Goncourt journals for a while... I love this sort of window into the past. Great post!

  7. I see that in French you can acquire the journals in three massive tomes of 1,300+ pages each. Much of that is notes - I hope! The top novel is Germinie Lacerteux. I am playing with

    Anyway, my point, Adria, is: yes, a window into the past, a bigger window than it might first seem, although I guess a reader with no interest whatsoever in the literary world will be baffled.

  8. I'd like to read this but the size of the Journals are a bit scary.
    Today, they're mostly known for their Journal. (and for the Goncourt Prize, of course)

    Have a safe trip to France, the weather is great these days.


  9. The size, yes. I enjoyed the book a lot, but I was happy to read an abridgment.

    I have heard that the French rainy season may have ended. Good, good.

  10. Fantastic review - absolutely qualifies! We love to hear about books about authors and artists....I love the idea of those literary dinners (akin to the scenes from Midnight in Paris) and to imagine the depths of their debates... hard to find in my world. Thanks Bellezza for linking it into the weekly menu. And all the best with the trip Tom... we are jealous!

  11. Welcome, Tamara. How pleasant to see these new visitors. I will warn that two more Goncourt posts are coming. My usual method is to beat books to death, to write about them beyond any possible rational interest. But I enjoy it!

    Speaking of menus, I am already thinking gluttonous thoughts about France.