acts of despair in the face of infinity

“Debauchery,” the Goncourts wrote in 1861,”is perhaps an act of despair in the face of infinity.”

…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.” Read More:

—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.”—Read More:

The record was the Goncourt Journal. As soon as the brothers started to go out together into literary circles and into “society” they began to keep a joint daybook, recording conversations and gossip, criticizing new plays, estimating new personalities. It was poorly received at the time: fw acquaintances liked have their indiscretions and dirty laundry hung out in public and their characters dissected with surgical precision.

…And since this is a French book, there are some cutting epigrams: “Any picture that produces a moral impression is a bad picture… There are very few cases of bereavement in which the woman does not say :’It’s a good thing I didn’t buy a summer dress.’ Renan’s brain was like a deconsecrated cathedral, full of piles of wood, bales of straw, and heaps of assorted lumber, but retaining its religious architecture.”

The best way to appreciate the Goncourt Journal is to see it not as a collection of miscellaneous and fragmentary paragraphs but as a kind of history. When a man reads all the important documents on a big subject, such as the birth, progress and death of the British Empire in India, and then describes it in a series of orderly chapters, he is manifestly a historian. When a man lives through a series of historical events , observing them with a clear, steady gaze, and sets down his impressions of them while they still have the freshness of immediacy, is he not writing historically? The organization is different, but it corresponds more closely to our actual experience of life; and although it is discontinuous, it is not haphazard. No historian is truly impersonal, however much they may pretend to be. The kind of history typified by the Goncourt Journal is more frankly personal than an organized historical study, that is all. It is not less valuable.

—Much of the impetus behind the Journal seems to relate to the brothers’ desire to preserve moments of everyday life. Jules writes: ‘In my Journal, I have tried to collect all the interesting things which are lost in conversation.’ The brothers are not unaware of the interpretative aspect of their Journal, the fact that it records their sensibility and reality rather than anyone else’s:
In this day-to-day autobiography there appear those people whom the accidents of life cast into the path of our existence. We have portrayed these men and women as we saw them on a given day and at a given hour, reverting to them in the course of our journal, displaying them later in a different light, according to the changes and modifications they had undergone…
Sometimes, I must admit, I wonder whether the changes indicated in people close to us or dear to us were not really due to the chances that took place in ourselves. That is certainly possible. (xix)—Read More:


(see link at end)…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.”Read More:

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