By Ray Greenblatt
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, brothers and collaborating novelists, decided in 1851 to begin a journal that would truthfully observe their friends and events. Although younger Jules died in 1870, Edmond continued the journal until 1896, when he died, totaling nine volumes. This 1962 edition is one of the few English translations.
Here is why they collaborated so well: “Edmond can see himself perfectly well as a soldier in another age, with his Lorraine blood, no distaste for fighting, and a love of daydreaming. I for my part see myself involved in chapter-house negotiations, in monastic diplomacy, taking a vainglorious delight in tricking men and women for my own pleasure and the irony of it all . . . The strange thing is that although we are absolutely different in temperament, taste , and character, we are absolutely identical in our ideas, our judgments, our likes and dislikes as regards other people, and our intellectual perspective. Our minds see alike and see with the same eyes.” (108)
This was their intention: “But I assure you on my honour—and those who know me can testify that they have never heard me tell a lie—that the conversations I have quoted in the four volumes which have so far appeared are as it were shorthand transcripts, reproducing not only the speakers’ ideas but more often than not their actual expressions. And I feel certain that every disinterested and perceptive reader will recognize that my desire and ambition have been to depict exactly the men I was portraying, and that not for anything in the world would I have wished to attribute remarks to them which they did not make.” (358)
And the Goncourts were truly at the center not only of literature in Paris but also of art, music and the theater. Since they were fiction writers, let us first look at their novelist friends. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and leader in the school of Realism, was a long-time friend. “He started looking at our portfolios, our books, our bric-a-brac, like an inquisitive, excited child. He looks extraordinarily like portraits of the actor Frederick Lemaitre as a young man, very big, very powerfully built, with large protuberant eyes under puffy lids, full cheeks, heavy drooping moustaches, and a complexion speckled with red patches.” (40)
Flaubert’s home was elegant. “The vast Seine along which the masts of boats which are hidden from sight pass as if at the back of a stage; the tall, splendid trees twisted into tortured forms by the sea breezes; the espalier-shaped park, the long terrace-walk facing due south, the peripatetic path, all make a real writer’s home.” (254)
Emile Zola , who defended Alfred Dreyfus in the press, was another friend: “A waxy, anaemic complexion, a strapping young fellow with something of the delicate modeling of fine porcelain in his features, in the line of his eyes, in the angry planes of his nose, and in his hands . . .The dominant side of him, the sickly, suffering, hyper-sensitive side, occasionally gives you the impression of being in the company of a gentle victim of some heart disease. In a word, an incomprehensible, deep, complex, character; unhappy, worried, evasive, and disquieting.” (144)
Alphonse Daudet took fiction a step further with his Naturalism: “And to make up the deficiency, he promptly poured himself a succession of glasses of liqueur. His hand, of an extraordinary whiteness, kept going up to stroke his Ninevite beard and his long hair, which seemed damp with all that he had drunk and fell in tearful locks over his forehead; and a rakish beauty came to his face, which bent lovingly over his waistcoat as if over a woman’s body.” (221)
Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables: “And there, his arms folded across his chest, his body thrown back a little in his buttoned frock-coat, and a white scarf round his neck, Hugo started talking again. He spoke in a soft, slow voice, slightly muffled yet still clear, a voice which played with words and uttered them caressingly; he spoke with his eyes half-closed and with all sorts of feline expressions passing across that face of his which was shamming death, that flesh which had taken on the fine, warm coloring of the flesh of a Rembrandt syndic; and when he grew excited, there was a strange rising and falling of the line formed by his white hair along his forehead.” (223)
Known for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas: “At the Princess’s, resplendent in white tie and white waistcoat, huge of breath, and as happy as a Negro’s fortune, Dumas pere made his appearance. He had just got back from Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. He spoke about Pesth, where they had staged his plays in Hungarian; about Vienna, where the Emperor had lent him a room in his palace in which to give a lecture.” (116)
Anatole France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921: “Extremely talkative, he speaks with the eloquence of an academician—which he has yet to become—appreciated by society, but with an admixture of paradoxical, anti-bourgeois ideas, somewhat reminiscent of Renan, which make his conversation amusing. And then he no longer has the foolish face he had when he was young: somewhat thickened features give him a thoroughly masculine head, which has shed the silly fatuity of his adolescence.” (396)
George Sand is one of the few women novelists in the Goncourts’ group. “When we got up to go, she rose, gave us her hand and showed us to the door. At that point we were able to catch a glimpse of her face, which is sweet, gentle, and serene; the color has gone out of it but the features are still delicately defined in a pallid, matt complexion of a pale amber hue. There is a serenity and a subtlety in these features which her latest portrait, coarsening her and over-emphasizing the line of her nose, entirely fails to reveal.” (72)
“Guy de Maupassant,” famous for short stories like The Necklace, “told me that Cannes is a wonderful source of information for him. There the Luyns, the Orleans and the Princesses de Sagan spend the winter; and there life is much more easy-going and people talk more freely and more readily than in Paris. And he gave me to understand that, understandably and intelligently, he goes there to find his male and female characters for the novels he is planning to write about life and love in Parisian society.” (300)
Even a Russian who lived a number of years in France, Ivan Turgenev noted for the novel Fathers and Sons, was part of the Goncourt coterie: “Turgenev, that gentle giant, that lovable barbarian, with his white hair falling into his eyes, with a deep line crossing his forehead from one temple to the other like a furrow, and with his childish language, enchanted us from the soup-course on, wreathed us, as the Russians put it, with his combination of innocence and shrewdness—the great charm of the Slav race, heightened in him by the originality of a superior intelligence and by an immense, cosmopolitan fund of knowledge.” (197)
Poets & Philosophers
Theophile Gautier, a Romantic poet, was another one of the Goncourts’ oldest friends. The energy in his prime: “I never think about what I’m going to write. I pick up my pen and I write. I’m a man of letters and I’m supposed to know my job. So there I am in front of my paper, like an acrobat in front of his springboard. And then, I’ve got my syntax very tidily arranged in my head. I throw my sentences into the air, like so many cats, and I know that they’ll fall on their feet. It’s all very simple: all you need is a good grasp of syntax.” (23)
Toward the end of his life: “And his head fell forward, his great, heavy, wrinkled eyelids dropped down over his eyes, his hands dangled limply, and sleep, bending him forward, seemed to be pushing him towards one of those deaths which are found with their faces on the floor. We were seized with gloomy forebodings about the man, laden with honors at the moment and standing on the threshold of academic immortality, a threshold on which it seemed to us that the cruel irony of life’s compensations was already nailing together his coffin.” (143)
Stephane Mallarme, a Symbolist poet, “whom Alphonse Daudet asked with every circumspection whether he was not trying at the moment to be more obscure and abstruse than in his first works, in that slightly wheedling voice which someone once said occasionally goes flat with irony, after a great many strange phrases such as: ‘One cannot write in white,’ finished his nebulous amplifications by confessing that at present he regarded a poem as a mystery to which the reader had to find the key.” (383)
Two poets known as Decadents were Verlaine and Baudelaire. Paul Verlaine: “Mother and son lived in a wine-dealer’s house: the son downstairs, unable to leave his bed on account of something wrong with his legs, the other upstairs, watched over after her death by friends of Verlaine’s who were dead-drunk all the time. Friends and undertaker’s mutes, each as tight as the other, had enormous difficulty in maneuvering the coffin down the narrow staircase: a descent in the course of which the son’s door was opened for a moment and an aspergillum handed to him so that he could sprinkle holy water on the coffin from his bed.” (315)
Charles Baudelaire, known for his Flowers of Evil, “had supper at the next table to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were going to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds. He denies, with some obstinacy and a certain harsh anger, that he has offended morality with his verse.” (30)
Three men were known for their expertise in literary criticism, history and also philosophy: Sainte-Beuve, Taine, and Renan. “Sainte-Beuve, who had written to ask if he might come to see us, came here at two o’clock. He is a short, tubby little man, stockily built with a peasant’s neck and shoulders, dressed in a simple country manner, rather like Beranger, without any stylish touches. He has a high forehead, a bald white head, large eyes, a long, inquisitive, sensual nose, a wide, crudely shaped mouth, a broad smile which reveals a set of white teeth, prominent cheekbones like a pair of wens: altogether a somewhat batrachian face with a pink, well-fed complexion.” (63)
One of the Goncourt’s oldest friends, they described him just before his death: “Sitting at the head of the table, Sainte-Beuve looked like a butler. It was a gloomy meal, and anybody might have thought it was the host’s funeral feast. He looked broken, old, and doddering, complaining of the agony of living with those senile grimaces of old men, that closing of the eyes that seem to say: ‘There, I can feel it again,’ those gestures of miserable compunction and those empty words of self-pity. He ate nothing, got up two or three times during dinner, asking us to pay no attention to him, and came back like the ghost in his house, like the shade of an old man anxious not to disturb anybody.” (131)
Hippolyte “Taine dined with us this evening, with his pleasant, friendly glance under his spectacles, his almost affectionate consideration for others, his rather puny but distinguished appearance, his smooth, flowing, picturesque conversation, full of historical and scientific ideas, and the overall impression he creates of a young, intelligent, even witty professor, in deadly fear of being pedantic.” (83)
Ernest “Renan looked up from his plate.
‘In all the subjects I have studied, I have always been struck by the authority of the German mind and German workmanship. It is not surprising that in the art of war, which is an art after all, inferior but complicated, they should have achieved the superiority which, I repeat, I have observed in all the subjects I have studied and with which I m familiar . . . Yes, gentlemen, the Germans are a superior race!’” (170)
Various famous people passed by on the fringes of the Goncourt circle: the playwright Ernest Feydeau and the actress Sarah Bernhardt; sculptor Auguste Rodin and Impressionist painter Edgar Degas; Prosper Merimee who wrote Carmen and the wife of Georges Bizet who transposed it into an opera; even Georges Clemenceau the politician before he became Prime Minister. They all were x-rayed in the Goncourt Journals in their good and bad moods for posterity.
In all my readings about British and American writers, I have never come across extended times where they came together socially. The Nineteenth Century French camaraderie of like-minded artists is a rare one to be savored. Yes, the rivalry must have been strong and arguments fierce; but it was worth it for the opportunity to trade ideas and obtain valuable criticism. Can you imagine casual statements often made in the Journal like this: “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.” (207) I wish I could have been an eavesdropping waiter. Fortunately, the Goncourts were there to transcribe and prove that this world existed!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0140570144?tag=picclick0f-20&linkCode=osi&th=1&psc=1
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.
I read this post with a great deal of interest. These are such remarkable descriptions of people we only know from books.