Edmond and Jules De Goncourt
“ The reders of Daudet’s Souvenirs d’un Homme de Lettres will remember the touching description he gives of Edmond de Goncourt reading to his friends the manuscript of the first book written by himself alone, after the death of his brother Jules ; how his glance wandered over to the empty place at the table, where for twenty years his “ twin mind ” had toiled and written with him, — two intelligences so bound together by love, by mutual sympathies and tastes, that, as they said of themselves, they could never tell which one of them had first thought or expressed the written word.
It was in the same room described by Daudet, in Goncourt’s house at Auteuil, that I saw him. The sunlight, shining through the yellow leaves of the great trees in the garden, filled the room with golden light, touching the beautiful Japanese bronzes and lacquers on the large writing-table before the window, and showing the rich and rare bindings of the books that lined the room. A tall, aristocratic - looking man, over whose whole expression and appearance was the shadow of an unalterable grief, came forward and greeted me with courtesy and simplicity. There is no doubt that at seventy years of age the life and thought of a man have left an indelible impression on his physiognomy. The ignorant and vulgar critics who call the author of La Fille Eliza and Germinie Lacerteux gross and brutal, those who pretend he is vain and egotistic, would not find a trace of any qualities such as these words imply in the melancholy and beautiful face of the most distinguished and interesting personality in modern French literature.
One feels in his manner the dignified ambition, the noble pride, of a man of letters, who for more than forty years has been a constant searcher after perfection of form and style, and has never sacrificed his high ideals of truth and beauty to those two modern literary divinities, money and notoriety. His large, brilliant dark eyes, with their keen regard, have an expression of kindly irony ; the long white mustache and imperial do not conceal entirely the delicate, sensitive lines of the mouth ; his hand, that part of us which expresses so much, is very beautiful, and the grasp, at once firm and delicate, reveals the artist and collector, — a hand made for the etcher’s burin, or for handling rare and delicate objects. Together with his face of a poet and artist, the high, full forehead, the square, solidlooking head, give the idea of a man of science, a collector and classifier of facts. It is exactly this union of keen observation and scientific investigation with the imagination of the poet applied to his art that gives to the work of Goncourt so great a value.
Although it is more than twenty years since the death of the younger brother, one feels their common thought, and Edmond de Goncourt, in the journal begun in 1851 by the two, and continued by him since the death, in 1870, of his deadly loved companion, keeps the title Journal des Goncourt ; so that, when they are spoken of, it is always as if the two were still writing together,— it is always the brothers des Goncourt.
Fifty years from now, the Journal des Goncourt will be the most fascinating and vivid history in existence of the literary and artistic life of Paris during the last half of this century. Their intimate friendships with all the great writers of the time give to the volumes an enormous value for one who wishes to follow the history of modern French literature. But its supreme interest will always consist in its being that full and free history of the tender and intimate union of the two brothers who, from the time of their mother’s death until the death of the younger, a period of more than twenty years, were never separated but once for twenty-four hours. Their work, their sufferings, their pleasures, were shared together ; no outside love or friendship ever came between them. It was the cruel fate of the elder to see the younger brother, so passionately and tenderly loved, with his brilliant, finely organized intellect, break down under the long-sustained effort for perfection in his art (“ Il est mort du travail de la forme à la peine du style.— E. de G.”) ; dying without having received the recognition or honors that were his due, and suffering all the torture and agony that a fine nature, a rare intelligence, can suffer in feeling his reason, his understanding, disappear, slowly but surely, from day to day, until death came. There is no antique tragedy, no modern drama, more heart-rending, more pathetic, than the story of the last months of Jules de Goncourt, as recorded by his brother, who gives his reasons for printing the account of those terrible days in the following passage : —
“Oh, there will be those who will say that I have not loved my brother, that one cannot describe a real affection. That affirmation does not affect me in the least, for I have the consciousness of having loved him more than those who will say that have ever loved a human creature. They will also say that, in illness, one should hide the weakness, the moral feebleness, of the patient. Yes, for a moment I felt I could not give to the public this part of the journal. There were words, phrases, that tore my heart in rewriting them ; but, repressing all sensibility, I have thought it would be useful in the history of letters to give this brutally frank study of the agony of a dying man, killed by devotion to his profession, and also, I can honestly say, by unjust criticism, by the insults, the hatreds, the jealousies, by which he has been pursued.”
Aristocrats by birth, instincts, and tastes, no modern French writers have so entered into the lives and sufferings of the wretched, the miserable, with the sympathy and comprehension of real lovers of humanity. Solitary and austere in their lives, consecrated to their work and their artistic studies, no writers have suffered more at the hands of ignorant and malicious critics ; it has only been by the really great writers of the time that they have been understood and appreciated ; and it is good to note in Edmond de Goncourt’s journal the full and free friendships, ended only by death, that he has enjoyed with Flaubert, Hugo, Gautier, SainteBeuve, and others. Long ago, in the preface to Germinie Lacerteux, written in 1864, the brothers wrote as follows : “ Today, when the novel is enlarged and more ample ; when it begins to be the serious, passionate, living form of literary study and scientific investigation in social questions ; when it is becoming, by its critical analysis, its psychological research, the contemporary history of morals and human life ; when the novel demands thorough and scientific studies, it has a right to claim a high place in the world of letters. If it seeks a form artistic and truthful ; if it show the misery that, the happy should not forget, exists ; if it picture to the world of fashion what the sisters of charity have the courage to see, what in olden times the queens essayed to cure with the royal glance, — the human misery which is always present, — if the novel have that religion which the past century calls by the grand and vast name Humanity, that consciousness is sufficient ; its right to exist is there.”
It is this large and noble view of the duty of the novelist that the creator of the modern romance has always held, —the writer to vlmsa works the future historian of this time will come for a knowledge of the art, the liturature, the human life, of the last part of our century.