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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

By Edmond de Goncourt for himself and his brother Jules


Let

us therefore, in the first place and as usual, stick to the history, though even this may require more than one mode and division of dealing.

[Sidenote: "Les deux Goncourt."]

The body of Naturalist or Experimental novels which, beginning in the 'sixties of the century, extended to, and a little over, its close, has long been, and will probably always continue to be, associated with the name of Emile Zola. But the honour or dishonour of the invention and pioneering of the thing was claimed by another, for himself and a third writer, that is to say, by Edmond de Goncourt for himself and his brother Jules. The elder of the Goncourts--the younger died in early middle age, and knowledge of him is in a way indirect, though we have some letters--might be said to have, like Restif, a _manie de paternite_, though his children were of a different class. He thought he invented Naturalism; he thought he introduced into France what some unkind contemporaries called "Japon_i_aiserie";[457] he certainly had a good deal to do with reviving the fancy for eighteenth-century art, artists, _bric-a-brac_ generally, and in a way letters; and he ended by fathering and endowing an opposition Academy. It was with art that "Les deux Goncourt"[458] (who were inseparable in their lives, and whom Edmond--to do him the justice which in his case can rarely be done pleasantly--did his best to keep undivided after Jules's death) began their

dealings with eighteenth-century and other artists[459]--perhaps the most valuable of all their work. But it was not till the Second Empire was nearly half-way through, till Jules was thirty and Edmond thirty-eight, that they tried fiction (drama also, but always unsuccessfully), and brought out, always together and before 1870 (when Jules died), a series of some half-dozen novels: _Charles Demailly_ (afterwards re-titled) (1860), _Soeur Philomene_ (next year), _Renee Mauperin_ (1864), _Germinie Lacerteux_ (next year), _Manette Salomon_ (1867), and _Madame Gervaisais_ (1869).

[Sidenote: Their work.]

It is desirable to add that, besides the work already mentioned and published before 1870, the two had given a book called _Idees et Sensations_, setting forth their literary psychology; and that, after the cataclysm, Edmond published a description of their house and its collections, his brother's letters, and an immense _Journal des Goncourt_ in some half-score of volumes, which was, naturally enough, one of the most read books of its time. Naturally, for it appealed to all sorts of tastes, reputable and disreputable, literary-artistic and Philistine, with pairs enough of antithetic or complementary epithets enough to fill this page. Here you could read about Sainte-Beuve and Gautier, about Taine and Renan, about Tourguenieff and Flaubert, as well as about Daudet and Zola, and a score of other more or less interesting people. Here you could read how Edmond as a boy made irruptions into a newly-married cousin's bedroom, and about the interesting sight he saw there; how an English virtuoso had his books bound in human skin; how people dined during the siege of Paris, and a million other things; the whole being saturated, larded, or whatever word of the kind be preferred, with observations on the taste, intellect, and general greatness of the MM. de Goncourt, and on the lamentable inferiority of other people, etc., etc. If it could be purged of its bad blood, the book would really deserve to rank, for substance, with Pepys' diary or with Walpole's letters.[460] As it is, when it has become a little forgotten, the quarterly reviewers, or their representatives, of the twenty-first century will be able to make endless _rechauffes_ of it. And though not titularly or directly of our subject, it belongs thereto, because it shows the process of accumulation or incubation, and the temper of the accumulators and incubators in regard to the subjects of the novels themselves.


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