The Goncourts and “Realism”

by Eric Byrd

11765303304_44aa3223d3_o“Called the ‘real origin' of Zola's Nana“! What 1950s drugstore customer, twirling the rack of paperbooks,
could resist that pitch? I will assume most contemporary readers are like me, and know the Goncourt brothers best by reading or rumor of their incomparable Journal. In the Journal their novels figure as neglected masterworks pillaged for themes, plots and argot by a generation of younger and more celebrated novelists – pillaged most shamelessly by Zola, who they frankly call a plagiarist. Their rancor and wounded pride made me curious, and when a copy of Germinie Lacerteux (1864) serendipitously surfaced in a dollar bin, I grabbed for it.

It's a failure, at least on the terms the Goncourts set forth in their polemical preface: they wanted to admit the lower classes into literature, via a new, scientific kind of social novel. (They diligently scouted slums and toured hospitals, between art auctions and literary dinners.) The problem is that Germinie – a lady's maid based on the Goncourts' own Rose, an irreproachable retainer of twenty-five years posthumously revealed to have stolen money and wine to fund secret sprees and support a rogue's gallery of gigolos – is dead on the page. On Germinie, the narration sounds here like a detective baldly noting the comings and goings of a mark under surveillance, there like a smug psychologist, righteous with phrenology or eugenics, composing a floridly prejudiced case history of some helpless imbecile. The Goncourts seem content to pass along maxims of human perversity, while remaining uninterested by, or incapable of, the portrayal of humans behaving perversely. They maintain a fastidious distance from scenes, from characters interacting; so much is distantly summarized; and their descriptions frequently become declamations. For all the verbosity lavished on her, Germinie is in the end hardly more vivid that her original, sketched in the Journal.

And yet Germinie Lacerteux has its pleasures, and the Goncourts their strengths. They have a genius for little misanthropic cartoons. Germinie gives everything for the sake of her lover Jupillon, an androgynous momma's boy, prole dandy and tavern idol. Jupillon is no more complex a character than Germinie, but he twitches with vile animation when touched with the Goncourts' galvanic disdain. I enjoyed reading about him. A glovemaker's boy who works in the shop window, he preens and pouts while on view; in the music halls, where he's petted and plied with drinks by fishwives and shawl-menders and depilatresses, Jopillon flaunts his “dubious elegances – hair parted in the middle, locks over his temples, wide-open shirt collars revealing his whole neck,” his sexless features “barely penciled with two moustache-strokes.” Through Jupillon – a prince, a promise of happiness to sad crones “still unused in their innermost depths, who had never been loved” – the Goncourts evoke the drabness and melancholy of the milieu through which he moves (according to his mother) “like a gentleman.”

The Goncourts also have a fine sense of urban squalor:

It was one of those woods like the old Bois de Boulogne, dusty and baked, a banal, deflowered resort, one of those places of miserly shade where people go to stroll at the gates of big cities—parodies of forests, full of wine-stalls and where, in the undergrowth, are found slices of melon and the bodies of suicides.

Floating free from Germinie on one of her weary trudges, they show us a grimy, splenetic, infernal Paris, the streetwalker's Paris, where “the glow from a street-lamp oozed over the livid plaster of the houses” and every prospect included a hospital, a slaughterhouse, and a cemetery; a kerosene-lit surgical amphitheater, Le Sang des bêtes, and a pit of paupers. And as befits two of the era's great collectors of bibelots and objets d'art, aesthetic historians whose genius was perhaps better suited to the conjuring of ghosts from eighteenth century ephemera than the creation of contemporary characters, the Goncourts know how to poetically shadow everyday objects. Here's the villainous currency Germinie scraped together to pay a man to take Jupillon's place in the Army draft:

And releasing the corners of the bit of linen, she spread out what was inside: onto the table flowed greasy bank-notes stuck together at the back and pinned together, ancient louis d'or rusted green, hundred-sous pieces that were all black, forty-sous pieces, ten-sous pieces, poor people's money, money-box money, money made dirty by dirty hands, crumpled in a leather pocket-book, defaced in a cash-desk full of small change—money that smelt of sweat.

They are the Chardin of the Second Empire's gutters.

The only critic on my shelves to consider Germinie Lacerteux is Erich Auerbach, who in Mimesis dismisses the Goncourts' claim to have created a scientific realism and depicted a lower class life. To Auerbach the Goncourts are simply aesthetes, collectors of strange impressions out to “satisfy an exacting taste surfeited with the usual,” their novel a manifesto for “the sensory fascination of the ugly, the repulsive, and the morbid,” and little more than a gesture, a slap in the face to “idealizing and elevating” bourgeois taste. Auerbach's argument, as I take it, is that Germinie Lacerteux is the child of Les Fleurs du Mal rather than the father of the Rougon-Macquart. (If the Goncourts are but connoisseurs of pathologies, then the pulp fiction packaging Ace Books gave Germinie Lacerteux is not the travesty it seems.) Auerbach is probably right: the Goncourts cannot help but see the poor as exotic wretches, grotesque deformations of their own distinction and reserve. But in their attention to objects and urban landscapes, to interiors and “material culture,” the Goncourts remain valuable painters of modern life; and if Germinie Lacerteux is not the novel they thought it to be, as a sample of their nervous rhetoric and morbid sensibility it deserves to be better known.