The Goncourt Memoirs

“ FOR me Nature is an enemy. The country seems to me funereal. The green earth appears to me like a great cemetery. That grass feeds on men.

Those plants grow and flourish on all that dies. That sun which shines, so smiling, so bright, is the great corrupter. Trees, sky, water, — all this suggests to my mind an allotment in a burialground, where the gardener renews the flowers in the spring. ... No, nothing of all that in Nature speaks to me says anything to my soul. No, it does not touch me like that woman who, at table just now, reminded me by the upper part of her head of Andrea del Sarto’s Charity, and by her mouth of the ghoul of the Arabian Nights. . . . No, it does not touch me like our talk of yesterday, the quick and cruel talk of young B. about Mirès. The physiognomy of woman and the word of man, — there alone is my pleasure, my interest.”

This extract might serve as the epigraph of the Journal des Goncourt,1 the second volume of which has recently appeared, containing the memoirs of the literary life of the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt during the years 1862—1865. This book is simply unique in the annals of French literature,— unique as a piece of literary art, and unique in the nature of its subject-matter, It is the diary of the most delicately sensitive observers, and at the same time the most exquisitely appreciative critics and historians of the art and society of the eighteenth century in France. As the passage above quoted warns us, we must not take up the Journal des Goncourt in the hope of finding any sympathetic record of the influence of earth, sea, or sky on the souls of the writers. The Goncourts are absorbed, as men rarely have been absorbed, in matters of art and of intellect; in the meditation, the contemplation, the enjoyment, of an idea, of a line, of a touch of color. They have studied themselves, their own sensations, the movements of their hearts, the quiverings and vibrations of the finest fibres of their faculties of enjoyment and suffering, with such persistency and refinement that they have become marvelously sensitive instruments for the notation of the most delicate and fugitive impressions of art and psychology. The Goncourts are Latin men ; for them the garden of reality contains no mazes, no secret arbors, where they do not dare to penetrate. Thus put upon his guard, the AngloSaxon reader will pass certain pages, if he pleases, — perhaps thirty out of three hundred; the rest he will read and wonder at, for in them he will find living and literally speaking portraits of many of the most remarkable writers and thinkers of the past forty years. The Goncourts were amongst the earliest members of the famous Dîner Magny, where, every Friday during the Empire, the guests were Gavarni, Sainte-Beuve, Théophile Gautier, Paul de Saint-Victor, Taine, Renan, Berlhelot, Nefftzer, Scherer, Flaubert, etc. When reading here and there in other literary memoirs about this dinner of illustrious wits, how often have we regretted that no record remained of their after-dinner talk! Happily, the Goncourts were there, and after every meeting the brothers would sit up till two or three o’clock in the morning, writing down in their diary the conversations in which they too had had their share ; and, the memory of one aiding the memory of the other, they would reconstruct the whole train of observations, answers, contradictions, and epigrams, giving with the fidelity of a stenographer the ipsissima verba of the speakers, but, with the art of the writer, omitting the superfluous, using freely a line of dots here and there, and preserving only the very summum and essence of what was said. This notation of real conversations has never before been achieved with such perfect art. Often the accompanying gesture is given ; the voice, even, is vividly described; each man speaks in a personal manner, with his own peculiar rhythm, his special cut of sentence, his particular accent; and as the same men return again and again in these conversations, we finally become so intimately acquainted with them that we seem to hear Sainte-Beuve interrupting his short, choppy little phrases with his inevitable “hum, hum,”and Théophile Gautier uttering prodigious paradoxes and terrible anathemas with the suavity of a serene and corpulent Titan. Besides these wonderful conversations, which defy translation, there are admirable pen-portraits: notably one of George Sand when she was living with the engraver Manceau, in the Rue Racine ; another portrait of George Sand at Nohant, drawn by Théophile Gautier, and reproduced by the Goncourts ; another of Michelet, described as having the appearance of a petit bourgeois rageur. All the men and women who figure in these literary memoirs are faithfully depicted, as they appeared and as they talked during the moments when they came under the observation of the Goncourts, in various moods and in various attitudes, both moral and physical. Often the conversation of these famous personages is far from Olympian ; not unfrequently it is surprising in its grossness ; but, nevertheless, it is always the conversation of high intellect. And this must be carefully borne in mind by those who might be tempted to criticise the uncompromising sincerity of the MM. de Goncourt. Whatever they may have said about Michelet, Gautier, or Sainte-Beuve, and however familiarly they may have depicted them, the authors have always presented their friends as men of distinguished intellect, and never with any intention of diminishing or disparaging their worth.

The Journal des Goncourt will comprise in all about ten volumes, half a dozen of which M. Edmond de Goncourt purposes to publish during his lifetime. To judge from the two volumes which have already appeared, and especially from this second volume, it is not impossible that for profound and complete literary and human interest the Journal will eventually be ranked above all the other works of the two illustrious writers.

  1. Journal des Goncourt. Mémoires de la Vie Littéraire. Deuxième Volume. Paris: G. Charpentier et Cie. 1887.