Book Review

Pages from the Goncourt Journals by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt

great book, sad scott

Lifetimes have passed while I’ve been reading this book, both within it and without.

After a long period of trying and failing to access it, I’ve finally got my finger in the door of the Canadian health system for more attempts to treat whatever problem within me it is that makes me – whenever I’m not actively distracted – curl into a ball on the ground and start crying and hyperventilating. Don’t be scared, though, I’m distracted now!

My new therapist told me they feel trepidation at “exploring my sadness”, which didn’t make me feel very relaxed about leaving the session or returning next time.

Oh, well, I will anyway
Because
There is a void
a hole
within me
and whenever I look at it
I collapse.

I sit with myself
without music or books or podcasts or HBO or Mario Kart Tour
and within three or four minutes
I am broken
torn and
hyperventilating on the floor.

That is an attempt
At a Natalie Imbruglia reference.

Even here
I do not take myself seriously.

Last week I worked 95 hours.

95 hours.

That sounds absurd, but that comes from tutoring Chinese children online for 11 hours (at 5 or 6 am several mornings a week), and then working an average of just over twelve hours the other seven days of the week at my day job, which is in a – v cool and hip – new venue which last week opened its doors, so hopefully won’t demand such hours any more.

But no one who doesn’t hate themselves and/or their home life would ever consent to such extreme working hours. I don’t hate my home life. I hate myself.

Because those are the working hours of someone who is running away from something.

Hiding.

Work is the parts of life where life doesn’t happen.

Work is a necessity in a society that has mistakenly evolved beyond the sustainable model of subsistence farming, but work is a retreat from the self, and 95 fucking hours in a single week is Dunkirk level backtrack. 

I need to not retreat from myself. I need to delve and to hope that, some day, I will delve and what I find down in the depths isn’t an abscess, but is instead something solid, something stabilising.

Something I don’t need to distract myself from with exercise, work, blogging and Wham!

///

Pages from the Goncourt Journals is an absolute treat.

Written between 1851 and 1896 by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (Jules contributing only up until 1870, when syphilis killed him dead at 40 years old), it is the private diaries of these men, deep within the literary (and artistic) scene of Paris in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The de Goncourt brothers were friends with Flaubert and Hugo and Zola, with Maupassant and Balzac, with Turgenev and Dumas, and also had memorable encounters with Degas and Rodin and many other figures whose significance in French cultural and political history I am ignorant of.

Edmond even moves in similar Parisian circles to Oscar Wilde towards the end of his life, but due to Edmond’s homophobia (coupled with a prurient interest in the sex lives of his peers), he doesn’t seek out the Irishman.

In this lovely NYRB edition (translated by Robert Baldick, hahaha his name is almost “ball dick”, both of which are parts of genitalia, hahaha) we get exactly what one would expect from an insider’s expose of the intricacies of the 19th century Parisien literary scene.

The de Goncourts were aristocrats and friends with princesses, and in a period of a growing middle class, they felt like they were the victims of anti-posh prejudice, much like contemporary arseholes claim today.

The de Goncourts wanted to be taken seriously as novelists, as historians, as dramatists, and always felt that they were never “given their due”. To ensure a legacy, Edmond established the Prix Goncourt in his will, ensuring the brothers’ posterity. However, it hasn’t caused any critical reevaluation of their work: until I read this book (which I first heard of, like most of us (I imagine), in the pages of Proust) I hadn’t realised how prolific these toffs were.

The de Goncourts were desperate to be respected as writers and thinkers, and the thread of bitterness that underpins their journals allows the reader to keep a comfortable distance.

There’s a lot of snobbery, a lot of sexism, a lot of homophobia and a lot of gossiping.

The brothers are funny, or at least are able to effectively evoke the wit of other people, as a lot of this work is reported anecdote, second hand biographical detail. Though this means that it’s pretty legit to question the accuracy of a lot of the gossip included here, the fact that Edmond didn’t begin publishing the journal until almost everybody mentioned was dead (except for people he deemed either too poor or too emotionally close to him to sue) allows for the slither of presumed reliability.

It’s about affairs and rivalries and duels, it’s about political intrigues and the Siege of Paris (which is fucking crazy, look it up – Parisians ate all the horses, all the animals in the zoo and even though the city was properly sieged up for many months, they never ran out of wine or cheese because there was such a stockpile hahaha), it’s about grieving for a brother, it’s about failing to grasp ones own limitations and failings, about denying the evidence of ones own experience and defaulting to idolisation of crude stereotype.

Edmond’s real tragedy was that no matter how many intelligent, articulate, women who he had mature, sincere, friendships with, his reliance on gross generalisations show him as someone very unquestioning of norms and people (including himself). This failure to consider is probably why he failed as a creative, but excelled as a diarist, publishing details that that most, wiser, people would have kept to themselves.

///

Yes, the world’s premier Francophone literary prize is named after the de Goncourts, but that’s because they had money, basically none of which came from their literary exploits.

The de Goncourts were hobbyist creatives, with nothing else (or nothing better) to do, and their decision to keep (and Edmond’s decision to publish) these journals, detailing the personal lives of many people much more interesting than the de Goncourts themselves, was a canny, but effective, way of ensuring their memory.

The de Goncourts were not skilled writers, and the entirety of their legacy rests on their contact with more talented people. Their journals are read for the glimpses of Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, and the Prix Goncourt demands respect not because of its founders, but because of its history of agreeing with the broad critical consensus of the 20th century.

Maybe the journals were created as cynically as the prize, but I don’t think they were, I hope they weren’t, because neither of the brothers sound like remotely tolerable men…

If you like books with sex, sadism and snobbery, then this is definitely worth as much of a look as last week’s new James Bond trailer. Lol. James Bond.

Bye bye.

PS: It’s translated by Robert Baldick (hahaha ball and dick) and available from NYRB Classics via this link.

0 comments on “Pages from the Goncourt Journals by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt

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