12.12.2007

"the confidant of my thoughts"

I just finished a book on neurasthenia, that wonderfully evocative nervous disorder of tremulous aesthetes, profligates, and women (more next post), and decided to peruse some first-hand accounts. I started rereading the Goncourt Journals. The brothers Goncourt, Edmond (1822–96) and Jules (1830–70), lived together, wrote essays, plays and novels together (though little of that made it into the 20th let alone the 21st century) and, most notably, kept a journal together. Part of the Parisian Bohemian literary set, the brothers– sensitive, rarefied, and ultimately, rather spinsterish–recorded comings and goings with their friends (May 11, 1859– A ring at the door. It was Flaubert...), their insecurities about fame and the lack thereof, and most deliciously, a running social commentary (January 2, 1867– Dined at the princess's with Gautier, Feuillet and Amedee Achard, a wilted man of fashion, a mind without emphasis... the archetype of nonentity).

The brothers began their journal on what was to have been a momentous occasion–the publication of their novel. Unfortunately, day of all days, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, called Napoleon III, chose that December 2nd to seize power and make himself dictator of France. The boys were positively apoplectic with annoyance:
In swept our cousin Blamount... full of asthma and peevishness. "By God," he panted; "It's done!"
"What? What's done?"
"The coup d'etat!"
"The Devil you say! And they're bringing out our novel today!"
The journal is filled with breathtakingly misogynistic pronouncements, pithy characterizations of social grandees, much self pity and hand-wringing, hilariously astute asides, and gluckschmerz. Sort of like Lord Whimsy meets Gawker.

A random sampling:

no date 1856—These past day a vague melancholy, discouragement, indolence, lethargy of mind and body. Feeling more than ever this despondency of my return [from Italy], which is like some great disappointment. We come back to find out life stagnating just where it was... I am bored by the few monotonous and repeatedly scrutinized ideas that trot back and forth through my head.And other people to whom I looked forward in the expectancy of entertainment, bore me as much as myself....Nothing has happened to them either; they have simply gone on existing... No one has even died amongst the people I know I am not actually unhappy: it is something worse than that.

April 24, 1858—Between the chocolate soufflĂ© and the chartreuse Maria loosened her corsets and began the story of her life.

May 27, 1858–... After so many skinny graces, so many sad little faces, careworn and with the clouds of eviction on their foreheads, forever scheming to gouge something out of you... after all these shopworn gabbling creatures, these squawking parakeets with there miserable slang picked up in workshops and in the clattering cafes...what a satisfaction lies in Maria's peasant health... in her peasant speech, her strength... the heart that is evident in her with its lack of breeding...as if I've found myself eating simple and solid food in a farmhouse after a vile dinner in a filthy pothouse.

March 3 1864—At a ball, at Michelet's, the ladies were costumed as the oppressed nations– Poland Hungary, Venice, and so on. It was like watching the future revolutions of Europe dance.

December 14, 1868—Our admirer Zola came to lunch today... He talked about how hard his life was...He wants to do"big things" and not "those squalid, ignoble articles I have to write for the Tribune for people whose idiotic opinions I am forced to take..."


The brothers themselves noted that they attempted to sketch from nature, to "record those swiftly passing moments of emotion in which personality reveals itself." Their mission: to observe and document "le vrai." They could find meaning– divine character– in the ephemeral, telling, details of the day-to-day. Describing the journals in an author's preface Edmond announces, "... this work hastily set down on paper and sometimes not reread, the reader will find our syntax of the moment and our occasional passportless word, just as they came to us."

Never having been separated for much more than a day (30 hours to be exact) in their entire lives, their intense bond was broken only when Jules died of syphilis. Edmond considered the journals over at that point. However, before long he was compelled to continue (for 26 more years in fact) and decribed the diaries as "the confidant of my thoughts."

My copy of the Goncourt journals, Doubleday 1958, cover by Phillipe Jullian, typography by Edward Gorey.
Photograph of the brothers by Nadar, c mid-1860s.

This English edition, originally published 1937, is, unfortunately, quite abridged ("[this volume] translates the most informing and agreeable passages... the reader has been spared most of the pages where they bemoaned their lot or recorded their ills.") although the translation itself seems superb.

1 comment:

emptyflow said...

Thanks for the interesting posts. I read an article about the journals in the New York Review of Books and became very curious about them (haven't read yet).

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