Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Goncourts on Flaubert - his style, his innovations, his jam jars

The issue with the Goncourt brothers and Gustave Flaubert is that all three writers were working on related aesthetic problems, and the Goncourts in some sense got to them first, with their first novel published in 1851, five years before Madame Bovary began to be serialized.  Yet it was Flaubert who was immediately understood to be an innovator; it was Flaubert who attracted disciples; it was always Flaubert.

Now, it is possible that Edmond de Goncourt was simply mistaken about exactly how critics were differentiating between Flaubert and the Goncourts, or it is possible that he was exactly right, except that what later critics, those writing now, for example me, value in Flaubert is not the same thing critics at the time valued; in other words, we can all be right.  This is one of the benefits of the humanities.  Or maybe the Goncourt novels really are second-rate compared to those of Flaubert and his disciples Zola and Maupassant.  It is as if there is not enough room in English for four French writers sharing a period and style.

I don’t know.  I should read a Goncourt novel someday and see for myself.

Anyway, that is the source of a passage like this:

Nowadays, among literary writers, style has become so affected, so selective, so eccentric as to make writing practically impossible.  It is bad style to place fairly close to one another two words beginning with the same syllable; it is bad style to use the word of twice in the same expression, and so on and so forth.  Poor Cladel, a victim of this modern malady of perfectionism, has just started rewriting for the fifth time a novel in which he has not yet reached page sixty.  (3 March, 1875)

Léon Cladel (1835-92), “novelist”; your guess is better than mine.  This is the result of everyone imitating Flaubert rather than Goncourt, although Goncourt does single out “the nebulous Mallarmé,” “a madman madder than the rest,” and Mallarmé ain’t Flaubert’s fault.

The argument goes back twenty years:

After that [an argument about metaphors] a tremendous argument over assonance, which Flaubert said had to be avoided even if it took a week to eliminate a single example.  The Flaubert and Feydeau started discussing a thousand different recipes for style and form, pompously and earnestly explaining little mechanical tricks of the trade, and expounding with childish gravity and ridiculous solemnity ways of writing and rules for producing good prose.  They attached so much importance to the clothing of an idea, to its colour and material, that the idea became nothing but a peg on which to hang sound and light.  We felt as if we were listening to an argument between grammarians of the Byzantine Empire.  (11 April, 1857)

That last simile is so good I am doubly tempted by a Goncourt novel, but I am warned away by the suggestion that they might possibly have ideas in them.   But of course I am a disciple of Flaubert.

Regardless, this is sublime:

Flaubert makes himself out to be the most extravagant and careless of men when it comes to handling money; but in fact he has no tastes to indulge, never buys anything, and has never been known to allow a sudden whim to make a hole in his pocket.  Flaubert makes himself out to be the most extraordinary of innovators in matters of interior decoration; but in fact the only idea he has had so far has been to use jam-jars as flower-vases, something of which he is inordinately proud.  (3 May, 1873)

On the one hand, see what I said above, on the other, I don’t care, I want this to be 100% true.


  1. Now there's a wonderful view of Flaubert's character that could be missed by the best of biographers.
    I have the Goncourt Journals (NYRB) and just went looking at Goncourt novels on Amazon (after reading this). There are a couple in English for the kindle, a lot of pricey reprints.

  2. Penguin Classics published Germinie Lacerteux in 1985. Maybe I can find that one. In book terms, 1985 was a long time ago.

    With all the Zola you have read, and the obscure Huysmans and so on, you would be an ideal reader to spark a Goncourt revival.

  3. I have a copy of Germinie, a vintage paperpack that looks decidedly sleazy.

  4. It strikes me as jarring to think of Flaubert and Feydeau discussing anything (that's my ignorance), but I love that they did. That passage about them brings to mind the Flaubertian character in Camus' La Peste, so fussy about his sentences that he hasn't gotten past the first one of his proposed novel.

    I've always wanted to read Feydeau's Fanny, a novel by this wonderful (and frequently hilarious) playwright. Now I'll have to add the Goncourts to the list too.

    1. Ouf, ch'uis idiot. Fanny is by the father, Ernest. Not by his playwright son. I still want to read it though.

    2. The conversation was with the father, Ernest-Aimé Feydeau. Georges wasn't born until 1862.

  5. Guy, perfect. Goncourt thought Zola stole huge chunks of L'Assommoir from Germinie - e.g., the ending, specific words used in the ending.

    Scott, it's great, isn't it, two professionals, not ideologists, caught up in the talk of their trade.


    I'd read that somewhere; I'll have to read it for myself.

  7. Thank you Guy. That cover made my night!

  8. I love how some writers' work just fades away and they become this memory of their time, such a hilarious responsibility; in a sense, journals full of this stuff is far better than ten good novels.

  9. As someone who's actually read a Goncourt novel:

    , I must say I liked it a lot (I seem to have forgotten to put it on my books read list, but I think I'd give it a 7). It seems closer in my mind to Zola than Flaubert (look, I even said in my review it reminded me of L'Assommoir, so I'm not surprised Goncourt thought Zola ripped him/them off). Anyhow, you should read it; I'm sure it would give you much to write about. Certainly in my opinion it's much better than Flaubert, but then the merits of Flaubert have always been a mystery to me.

    There's a free copy of Renee Mauperin around somewhere too, because I've got it on my Kindle and I certainly didn't pay for it (and of course you can get them all free in French).

  10. I remember obook'is post. It made the Goncourt novel sound quite appealing, in its own sordid way.

    Miguel's point is interesting. Edmond de Goncourt was aware of that kind of responsibility. The Journals were mostly published while he was alive, and while many of the people described in them were alive. He realizes, near the end of his life, that the Journals will be a major part of his own legacy.