“The Goncourt brothers have exerted an influence that is too often overlooked”

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Journalists, novelists, historians, art lovers, the Goncourt family are nevertheless often considered the authors of the only Newspaper and the founders of the academy that bears their name. Jean-Louis Cabanès and Pierre-Jean Dufief, editors of the Newspaper, complete works and correspondence (Garnier and Champion) have come together to restore this double life, caught in the aesthetic and political issues of the XIXe century.

We always put the Goncourt in the plural, what is the character of each?

Jean-Louis Cabanès: Jules has more wit than Edmond, who was more of a “collector”. Reading the manuscript of Newspaper, however, we see that a dream told in the first person is assumed by two different scriptwriters. They play on their twinning. It is a protection, but also a kind of exciting word. Their bodywork finds fuel there.

Pierre-Jean Dufief: Edmond claimed to be the architect of the novels, Jules would have been the finisher, the one who gives the Goncourt style its prettiness and brilliance. But in four-handed writing, it’s difficult to separate the two brothers. What unites them is the desire for literary survival. They both wanted to make a name for themselves that the foundation of an academy continues.

To make the biography of Goncourt is to make that of half a century of cultural life.

J.-L. C.: The Newspaper des Goncourt, “journal of literary life”, presents itself as a series of anecdotes, portraits and shorthand of conversations. Despite its pointillist aspect, it shows the evolution of aesthetics and artistic networks in the second half of the century. For the Goncourt family, symbolic hierarchy and economic hierarchy are dissociated. They sketch, in fact, a sociology of men of letters that can be read in the light of Bourdieu’s analyzes on the autonomy of the literary field.

What was your approach?

P.-J. D.: We have taken into account all of Goncourt’s work. Historians of art and everyday life in the 18th centurye century, they used neglected documentation, that of everyday objects, letters, newspapers, posters and fashion. With few material means, they knew how to constitute remarkable collections of drawings of the XVIIIe century and were among the first lovers of Japanese prints and objects. This biography analyzes their superabundant writings, it is based on largely unpublished correspondence and on careful reading of the press. We have used the most recent works of historians and literary critics to contextualize half a century of cultural life in its diversity and its evolutions, from the fantasies of bohemia to the eccentricities of decadence, while taking into account an essential fact: the lives of the two brothers, that of their loved ones, but also the collections gradually brought together become pages of writing.

We realize that they are the openers of modernity, all too unknown.

J.-L. C.: This modernity is multi-entry, modernity of subjects, modernity of an aesthetic. These body novelists make prevail what Jean Starobinski called a carnal subjectivity, a “I feel that I feel”. They are also the poets of second states, of the involuntary, of the fascination with the “soft noise” of death. They create, by evoking the landscapes of the Bièvre or the outskirts of the capital, new Parisian paintings. There is an aesthetic of brilliance everywhere: fragmenting the narrative into short chapters, sparkling phrase, brilliant style. The two brothers exerted an influence that was too often overlooked. Nietzsche loved their artist writing, he praised Salomon controller that he read in 1883 in Nice and that he mentions in his Posthumous fragments from 1884; Vincent Van Gogh appreciated the novels of the two brothers; Thomas Mann, in the Buddenbrooks, remembers Renée Mauperin ; Zola read them a lot before trying to crush them with “the masses”; Proust, who pastiché the Goncourt in recovered time, was inspired by their works and their style. Emile Gallé, one of the founders of Art Nouveau, will write to Edmond how much he owes the writer’s Japanese style.

But they are also anti-moderns, misogynist and anti-Semitic reactionaries.

J.-L. C.: They said they were depoliticized in 1849. They are in reality reactionaries of a particular type. Agnostics, they do not claim to be, unlike most antimoderns in the XIXe century, of Catholicism but of an XVIIIe fantasized century. Their misogyny is that of single writers like Huysmans, Flaubert or Maupassant; it is better understood if one refers to Baudelaire’s anti-naturalism or to the writers who, in the following generations, will assert themselves as Schopenhauerians. For the Goncourt family, the Jew is associated with money. It is not religion that is in question, but a “race” that they declare intrusive and domineering. Their anti-Semitism is the racist counterpart to an essentialization of social classes. Without this being able to take the place of compensation, the two brothers have sympathy for those who do not know “The bickering of success”. Edmond died too early to take a stand on the Dreyfus affair, but when the “traitor” is degraded, he doubts his guilt. We did not want to “moralize”, but to try to understand how we become the Goncourt, including anti-Semitism.

Their key word is to be “artist”.

P.-J. D.: The Goncourt family first wanted to be artists, it is the common denominator of a very diverse work. Write and live as an artist cannot be dissociated. These esthetes surrounded themselves with works of art. Edmond significantly titled a catalog work, where he describes his villa d’Auteuil, the house of an artist. The two brothers wanted to create a truly signed writing: artist writing, an expression of their sensitivity. They also praised the energy of popular parliaments, trying to formalize prose, but also to poeticize it by infusing lyricism in descriptions of prosaic objects or landscapes. This is part of their modernity.

Jean-Didier Wagneur

Jean-Louis Cabanès and Pierre-Jean Dufief The Goncourt Brothers Fayard, 800 pp., € 35 (ebook: € 33.99).



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