Moncrieff: 27-39; Patterson: 15-24
by Dennis Abrams
From the excerpt of the Goncourts’ Journal read by Marcel on his last night at Tansonville: M Verdurin, before his marriage, was a critic, author of a book on Whistler, and a morphine addict. The beauty of the Verdurin’s house and belongings. Little Dunkirk. The guests at the dinner: Cottard, the Polish sculptor Viradobetski “Ski,” “an aristocratic Russian lady, a princess with a name ending in -off which I fail to catch (Cottard whispers in my ear that she is the woman who is supposed to have fired point-blank at the Archduke Rudolf)…” “Princess Sherbatoff,” Brichot, and Swann. The extraordinary cavalcade of plates, “a meal most subtly concocted.” M Verdurin, according to Mme Verdurin is a crank who “would get more enjoyment from a bottle of cider drunk in the somewhat plebeian coolness of a Normandy farm. Summers in Normandy. Elstir was discovered by the Verdurins: It was Mme Verdurin, according to her, who taught Elstir about flowers, how to recognize jasmine, how to arrange flowers, how to dress the people in his portraits, who “chose the woman’s velvet down which forms a solid mass amid all the glitter of the bright tones of the carpets, the flowers, the fruit, the little girls’ muslin dresses that look like dancers’ tutus,’ even to paint the woman brushing her hair “an idea for which the artist was subsequently much praised and which consisted simply in painting her not as if she were on show but surprised in the intimacy of everyday life.” Her continuing anger at Elstir’s “vile marriage.” The story of the black pearls. Doctor Cottard’s “keen intelligence,” and “stimulating dissertation.” Swann praises Robert Louis Stephenson as “a really great writer…a very great writer, equal to the greatest.” Tobacco stains or licorice? Marcel stops reading in order to go to sleep, and ponders his inability to look and listen to surface details. “Prestige of literature! I wished I could have seen the Cottards again, asked them all sorts of details about Elstir, gone to look at the shop called Little Dunkirk, if it still existed, asked permission to visit the Verdurin mansion where I had once dined. But I felt vaguely depressed. Certainly, I had never concealed from myself that I knew neither how to listen nor, once I was not alone, how to look. My eyes were blind to the sort of necklace an old woman might be wearing, and the things I might be told about her pearls never entered my ears. All the same, I had known these people in daily life. I had dined with them often, they were simply the Verdurins and the Duc de Guermantes and the Cottards, and each one of them I had found just as commonplace as my grandmother had found that Basin of whom she had no suspicion that he was the darling nephew, the enchanting young hero, of Mme de Beausergent, each of them had seemed to me insipid; I could remember the vulgarities without number of which each of them was composed…”
I’ll have more to say about this section tomorrow. In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy a review of the Goncourts’ Journals by Adam Hirsch, so that you might have a better sense of who and what Proust is parodying:
by Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt
In every generation, one city emerges as the capital of the republic of letters. This is not necessarily the place where the best writing is being done: Masterpieces are just as likely to come from Jane Austen’s Hampshire parsonage as from Dr. Johnson’s London coffeehouse. It is, rather, a symbolic homeland of the imagination, a metropolis that sets the terms of critical judgment and literary debate. Such capitals are inevitably temporary, passing away as history and chance assemble other geniuses in other places. But long after they disappear, they retain a peculiar power to seduce the imagination. How many readers have wished they could talk with Goethe and Schiller at Weimar, or go to Greenwich Village parties with Hart Crane and Edmund Wilson?
Of all the cities that have served as literature’s capital, none is more famous or infamous than the Paris of the Second Empire; and no writers deserve more credit for its legend than the Goncourt brothers. Edmond de Goncourt, born in 1822, and his younger brother Jules, born in 1830, formed a partnership that is possibly unique in literary history. Not only did they write all their books together, they did not spend more than a day apart in their adult lives, until they were finally parted by Jules’s death in 1870.
The Goncourts wrote prolifically in every genre, but they never had the kind of success they so desperately wanted. They were less admired than Flaubert, though they shared his devotion to style, and less popular than Zola, though they pioneered the techniques of naturalism. Their plays flopped, while Alexandre Dumas got rich from “La Dame aux Camélias.” Their works on history and art were overlooked, as Hippolyte Taine and Ernest Renan became intellectual demigods. By the time he reached his 60s, Edmond was frantic to do something, anything, to secure his reputation: “My constant preoccupation,” he wrote, “is to save the name of Goncourt from oblivion in the future by every sort of survival: survival through works of literature, survival through foundations, survival through the application of my monogram to all the objets d’art which have belonged to my brother and myself.”
As it turned out, however, it was none of these things that rescued the Goncourts from “oblivion.” It was, rather, their Journals — the scandalous, vain, vengeful, brutally honest diaries in which the two brothers, and then Edmond alone, wrote the secret history of their age. Starting in 1851, the year their first novel was published, and ending just twelve days before Edmond’s death in 1896, the Goncourt Journals helped to immortalize their period as well as their authors. If we are still fascinated by the literary life of Paris in the late 19th century — not just the books but the personalities, the rivalries and friendships, the piquant combination of idealism and brutishness — we have the Goncourts to thank.
Both the idealism and the brutishness are on full display in “Pages from the Goncourt Journals” (New York Review Books, 434 pages, $16.95), a one-volume selection edited by the late scholar and translator Robert Baldick. This edition, which first appeared in 1962,is the latest of many delightful books brought back into print by New York Review Books, whose imprimatur has become a reliable guarantee of reading pleasure. In this case, the pleasure is decidedly of the guilty variety.
The Goncourts belonged to a world where poets mingled with princesses, politicians, and prostitutes, and they faithfully reported gossip from all levels of society, the more lurid the better. Indeed, the most representative sentence in the Journals may be the one that begins the entry for September 25, 1886: “This morning in the garden we talked about copulation.” It was a subject that never got boring. A friend of a friend had a mistress who claimed to have slept with Kaiser Wilhelm II: “She had orders to wait for him naked, stark naked except for a pair of long black gloves coming up above her elbows; he came to her similarly naked, with his arms tied together … and after looking at her for a moment, hurled himself upon her, throwing her onto the floor and taking his pleasure with her in a bestial frenzy.”
Swinburne, the English poet, would entertain visitors with “a collection of obscene photographs … all life-size and all of male subjects.” Zola had a second family that he hid from his wife; Turgenev lost his virginity to one of his serfs at the age of 12. Robert de Montesquiou, the aesthete who was the original of Proust’s Charlus, had his first love affair “with a female ventriloquist who, while Montesquiou was straining to achieve his climax, would imitate the drunken voice of a pimp, threatening the aristocratic client.”
Many of these stories seem to fall into the category of “too good to check.” But they provide a sense of what conversation must have been like at the famous “diners de Magny,” named after the Paris restaurant where the Goncourts, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, and other writers gathered. It was the world’s most illustrious locker-room, where lechery was ennobled by worldweary romanticism: “Debauchery,” the Goncourts wrote in 1861,”is perhaps an act of despair in the face of infinity.”
But the Goncourts’ Paris was also an intellectual boxing ring, where no one was ever allowed to forget his place in the standings: whose book had sold best, who had gotten a bad review, whose play was booed on opening night. “Coming away from a violent discussion at Magny’s,” the Goncourts write (using the first person singular, as always),”my heart pounding in my breast, my throat and tongue parched, I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: ‘I am better than you are,’ every literary argument to this: ‘I have more taste than you,’ every argument about art to this: ‘I have better eyes than you,’ every argument about music to this: ‘I have a finer ear than you.'”
The Goncourts, to their unending frustration, usually wound up at the bottom of the totem pole. They never had the success they thought they deserved, and over the years they became less and less able to tolerate the successes of their friends. It is true that their career was dogged by exceptionally bad luck. The first entry in the journal was made on December 2, 1851, the day the brothers’ first novel was published — and also, it so happened, the day that Napoleon III overthrew the Republic and took power as Emperor. As a result, the novel was completely ignored — “a symphony of words and ideas in the midst of that scramble for office,” as the brothers ruefully put it.
The Goncourts’ next big chance came in 1865, when their groundbreakingly realistic play “Henriette Maréchal” was performed at the Théâtre Français. But once again politics interfered, as protesters drowned the opening-night performance in “a tempest of hisses,” angered by the playwrights’ friendship with the emperor’s cousin. Jules died without ever enjoying a great success, and Edmond spent the rest of his life seething at younger, more talented writers like Zola and Maupassant. The last third of the journal alternates between self-pity (“I am condemned to being attacked and repudiated until the day I die”) and jealous digs at friends: “Maupassant’s success with loose society women is an indication of their vulgarity,” Edmond writes in 1893, “for never have I seen a man of the world with such a red face, such common features, or such a peasant build.”
Many writers think things like this about their rivals, but few have dared to record them for posterity. The Goncourts’ very shamelessness, their refusal or inability to censor their discreditable thoughts, is what makes their journals so absorbing — as Edmond himself knew full well. In his last years, he began to publish the early volumes of the journals, to the fury of certain friends who found old embarrassments dredged up in print. But he refused to be intimidated: “Monsieur Renan calls me an ‘indiscreet individual,'”Edmond told an interviewer in 1890. “I accept the reproach and I am not ashamed of it… For ever since the world began, the only memoirs of any interest have been written by ‘indiscreet individuals.'” The measure of the Goncourts’ indiscretion is that their journals are still so interesting, more than a hundred years later.
Moncrieff: Pages 39-50 “But provisionally I decided to ignore the objections against literature…” through “…the tastes and the personal preferences of the individual.” Kindle locations 526-33/661-68
Patterson: Pages 24-32 “I resolved provisionally to set aside the objections to literature…” through “…taste and personal preference of each individual.” Kindle locations 577-84/714-21