The Prix Goncourt is perhaps the biggest literary prize in France. First awarded in 1903, its stated intention is to uplift fledgling authors and provide them with the support to be able to write a second. Initially this ‘support’ was a hefty monetary reward, but as the prize’s reputation has grown, the prize money has become a symbolic 10 Euros [though if the exchange rate falls any lower it could render any British winners overnight millionaires] due to the cocky, if justified, assumption that bestowment of the prize will earn the writer far more in immediate sales. The prize is famous enough that Edmond and Jules Goncourt: The novelist brothers who founded the prize has long receded into functional anonymity. The novels they wrote together are forgotten, often deemed unreadable to modern sensibilities. Though of course you can still see some poor lost souls reading Varney “The Vampyr” so perhaps there are some serious Goncourtheads out there apoplectic with rage at that last comment; but for the most part their novelistic output has vanished.
There is one major exception to this rule and that is their shared journal, which was written between 1851 and 1896, unimpeded even by the agonising death of Jules Goncourt from syphilis in 1871. For over four and a half decades the Goncourts’ poured their anxieties and poisonous anger at their lack of success into the innocent paper. A colossal and vituperative sense of entitlement runs through the Journal, which has the side effect of making it absolutely hilarious, considering that both brothers are world-class bitches. The Journal was initially begun in 1851 to celebrate the publishing of their first, highly anticipated, novel only for Napoleon III to stage his coup d’état on the same day, putting the city under martial law and killing any buzz about their debut stone dead. This is merely the first sling and arrow that the brothers take as a personal slight from fate itself.
Already long since jaded by the time the Journal begins, the Goncourts glide through the artistic heights of the Parisian ‘Belle Epoch’ like sardonic vipers and dismiss most of it with little more than a contemptuous sniff. Coming from a moneyed, aristocratic background the brothers were able to survive the various failures of the novels, plays and magazines they released in their “hard and horrible struggle against anonymity” with nothing more than an increase in their already heroic supplies of bile: “Oh, if one of Dostoevsky’s novels, whose black melancholy is regarded with such indulgent admiration, were signed with the name of Goncourt, what a slating it would get all along the line ” opines Edmond with not the faintest hint of irony. As cornerstone members of the literary scene the Journal fairly teems with the artistic intelligentsia: Flaubert, Hugo, Zola, Rodin, Turgenev, Wilde, Degas and many more show up in an endless whirl of dinner parties, bars and brothels, where these titans of the 19th century all behave in a uniformly awful fashion. Bizarre sexual exploits, backbiting, jealousy, plagiarism and incredibly crude humour are the glue that bind these beatified saints of culture into what is less a friendship than a cold war.
The thing about the Journal which makes it stand out beyond being the 19th century equivalent of Motley Crue’s “The Dirt”, is the fact that in all the Goncourts striving for artistic recognition and jealousy, the actual Journal is almost certainly their magnum opus in terms of quality. Unshackled from their desperate need to be on the cutting edge that has helped their novels become increasingly impenetrable with the passing of the years, their Journal, written just for themselves without any particular airs, their entries frequently sparkle with literary diamonds. A casual mention of Baudelaire is render thusly “He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were going to be guillotined.” There is a definite unusually novelistic satisfaction that comes from the selected passages [in English it is only possible to get a 400 page condensed edition] that makes the Journal an unlikely page turner. Admittedly this all comes with the proviso that those who are repulsed by arrogance should look elsewhere, as Andre Gide noted “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.”
Between them they witness some of the most important events in Paris’s recent history, giving ground eye and deeply involved views of everything from the Franco-Prussian War, the Revolutionary Commune, the erection of the Eiffel Tower and the Dreyfus Affair. But whilst the self proclaimed ‘John the Baptists of modern neurosis’ offer a scintillating and Pepysian window of 19th century Paris that most biographers and historians would cheerfully sacrifice their first born to obtain, the question does remain how much can you trust it. The surviving Goncourt Edmond began to publish it in 1886-7 after becoming terminally frustrated with the continued lack of critical and commercial appreciation that he felt was their god-given right. Some of the figures in the journals contest their representation and being what it is the journal is fairly teaming with unsubstantiated and spiteful rumour that Edmond was clearly only too happy to reprint. So how much did they make up? It’s impossible to say, Edmond was noted for constantly scribbling notes on his shirt cuffs even mid-conversation which he would recycle into the journal so perhaps all of it is 100 percent authentic. Those of a cynical mindset however should be referred back to Andre Gide who, on being assured by an angry acquaintance that the Journals cannot be trusted remarked “the words that he puts into the mouths of various people, however false they may be according to you, are almost never uninteresting. Watch out, for the more you reduce his stature as a stenographer, the greater you make him as a writer, as a creator’’
The works are certainly a product of their time; the brothers initially embody a casual misogyny in their relations with women, though Edmond’s protracted friendship with Princess Mathilde Bonaparte slowly reverses it in a way that Edmond doesn’t even seem to notice. There is also an unfortunate tang of anti-Semitism that becomes apparent towards the end, which if nothing else, does paint the kind of social atmosphere that led to the Dreyfus Affair itself. The Goncourts at one point loftily assert that “a book is never a masterpiece, it becomes one. ’’ it would gratify, but naturally not surprise them, to learn that their Journal has joined that illustrious club.