Monday, January 08, 2007

We Are the Future!

It sounds so cultivated, so refined: Pages from the Goncourt Journals. I especially like the use of the word “pages.” “Selections” would be too prosaic. “Extracts” too mechanical (as if each entry was a rotten tooth needing to be removed). But “pages” strikes just the right note – as if the reader was so sensitive that she wouldn’t want to read it too fast, not more than a few pages at a time or the experience will be spoiled. “Quiet, children, please – I’m trying to savor pages from the Goncourt Journals!”

So who were the Goncourts? They were Edmond and Jules (born in 1822 and 1830, respectively), two French brothers who pursued a literary career in the 19th century. Together they wrote novels, plays and journalism. In 1851 they began keeping a journal. After Jules death nineteen years later, Edmond decided to continue writing it alone which he did until his own death in 1896. They knew just about everyone worth knowing in French literary circles during this time and they recorded every nasty bit of gossip, slander and insult that they could.

Refined, these journals are not.

The entry for April 14, 1875 is a dramatic, though not atypical, example:

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 diarrhea…

Spanning over forty years, these journals provide an unvarnished look at life in late 19th century France – the dinners, the receptions, the theatres, the salons, the court, the political coups, the barricades, and, of course, the brothels, always the brothels. The brothers held little back and their candid if brutal assessments of their contemporaries are one of the chief pleasures of this dish fest. Ah, and what a list of contemporaries is served up to us: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola (“what a whiner that fat, pot-bellied young fellow is”) Turgenev, Napoleon III, Anatole France, Oscar Wilde (“this individual of doubtful sex”) as well as other lesser known figures such as Sainte-Beuve and Theophile Gautier who at one point admits that he prefers his whores to be pre-menstrual so that he never has to worry about unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, no American authors appear in these pages. It would have been interesting to get the brothers opinion of Henry James (And, oh, what he could have contributed to a discussion of writers with constipation!).

This was a sordid little beau monde, a world in which the French Empress could complain about being socially upstaged in public by prominent courtesans. Not that those at the top were any better. Take, for instance, the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s brother and President of the Legislative Body. After his death in 1865 the Goncourts note:

The dead man’s friends were extremely worried over the disappearance of a little casket which Morny always kept on his bedside table, a casket containing portraits of all his conquests in all strata of society, photographed naked – usually with flowers decorating their privy parts. They are afraid that his personal valet has stolen it with the intention of blackmailing the ladies involved.

Not surprisingly, syphilis is, in effect, a major character in the journals. It was, after all, the little corkscrews (left) which killed Jules and the pages in which Edmond records his brother’s final dementia and death are stark and powerful. They will move you to tears.

Despite the gossip and dirt there’s no denying that the Goncourts are simply great writers. Edmond certainly knew these journals were masterpieces and in 1886 he began publishing an expurgated version of them. (A full unexpurgated version wouldn’t appear in France until 1958.) Whether describing Paris during the Commune or recreating heated literary arguments or just recording the events and thoughts for the day they write with an immediacy which is gripping. They took a seemingly ephemeral literary form (the journal) and turned it into an art. I’m almost tempted to call them “the first bloggers” except that honor would probably have to go to their predecessors in turning the mundane into the sublime – namely, Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire, both of whom turned the letter into great literature.

Once during a literary argument in a restaurant Edmond shouted out at the other guests: “We are the future!”

One can only hope.

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