Goncourt, Edmond and Jules de
GONCOURT, EDMOND AND JULES DE
GONCOURT, EDMOND AND JULES DE. Edmond (1822–1896) and Jules (1830–1870) de Goncourt, known to literary history as the Goncourt brothers, wrote and published jointly, signing their works with both their names, until Jules's death in 1870 at the age of forty, after which Edmond continued to write singly. While their importance lies chiefly in their work as novelists and diarists, their writings include journalistic pieces, theater criticism, art criticism, social history, biography, and drama. They contri-buted significantly to the promotion of Japanese art in France and to the renewal of interest in eighteenth-century French culture.
The most popular of their novels during their lifetime was Renée Mauperin (1864), the narrative of a young middle-class woman who inadvertently causes the death of her brother. Their most influential book, Germinie Lacerteux (1865), inspired by their discovery that their recently deceased maid had led a debauched existence, narrated the double life of a domestic servant. The book's concentration on the working class and its audacious depiction of a sexual pathology was seen as a provocation by the literary establishment, but the novel met with Victor Hugo's approval and strongly influenced the young Émile Zola. One of the novels, planned jointly but written by Edmond after his brother's death, La Fille Élisa (1877), continued their exploration of the seamy side of French society by focusing on prostitution and prison life, depicting a harlot starkly different from the idealized hooker of Romantic literature or the patriotic prostitute that Guy de Maupassant would depict three years later in "Boule de suif." Edmond's Les Frères Zemganno (1879) transposes his relationship with his brother into the world of circus entertainers while attempting to explore the psychology of that relationship.
The Goncourt brothers are usually seen as major participants in the development of realism in France, along with Gustave Flaubert and Zola. Like their two better-known contemporaries, the Goncourts conducted extensive research for each of their novels and, like Zola, frequently featured characters from the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Like most nineteenth-century realist writers, they accorded the milieu a determining role in the fate of their characters. The strongest example occurs in Madame Gervaisais (1869), perhaps their best novel, in which a well-read, freethinking bourgeois lady converts to Catholicism while in Rome under the influence of a milieu rich in religious sensations. The climate, the baroque churches, as well as the pageantry, the music, and the incense of Catholic Rome, lead the protagonist to a neurotic mysticism that culminates in her death. In this novel and others, the Goncourts depreciate the mental stability of women, whose lives end in insanity, death, or both. However, in their questioning of the reality of a unified, independent self that accompanies their study of the pathologies of the mind, the Goncourts subscribed to a psychological outlook that nurtured many subsequent novelists.
The Goncourts' novels are marked by an aestheticism not found in other writers deemed realist during this period. Rejecting the notion that everyday reality should be represented by a neutral style, the Goncourts developed a mode of writing known as écriture artiste, which departed from normative French syntax by prepositioning adjectives that normally belong in postposition, preferring abstract nouns to adjectives (whiteness rather than white), nominal constructions relying on weak verbs, and paratactic constructions in which series of qualifiers or nouns are juxtaposed without connecting conjunctions. In their writing, qualities and colors frequently precede the objects in which they inhere, giving an impressionistic quality to their prose. The prevalence of visual and olfactory sensations effectively promotes the importance of milieu, especially in a novel such as Madame Gervaisais.
In addition to their novels, some of which are still in print in the early twenty-first century in paperback editions in France, considerable attention has been given since the 1960s to their Journal, a multivolume work that began appearing in 1885 and which is a mine of information on Parisian literary culture from 1851 to 1896, while including broader descriptions, such as those on life in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and the Paris Commune that followed. Biased, eccentric, misogynist, self-serving, and sometimes unfair, this record of their daily observations and thoughts nonetheless allows the reader to penetrate into the important artistic and intellectual circles of the time.
France's most prestigious literary prize—the Prix Goncourt—is the result of a legacy from Edmond that established an Académie Goncourt which, since 1903 has given itself the task of annually selecting the best French novel.
Caramaschi, Enzo. Réalisme et Impressionisme dans l'œuvre des Frères Goncourt. Pisa, 1971.
Grant, Richard B. The Goncourt Brothers. New York, 1972.
Ricatte, Robert. La création Romanesque chez les Goncourt, 1851–1870. Paris, 1953.
Vouilloux, Bernard. L'art des Goncourt: Une esthétique du style. Paris, 1997.
Emile J. Talbot