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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists

The Goncourts

Texte intégral

  • 1 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 119.

We end with the sensation of a closed room, of a want of ventilation; we long to open a window or two and let in the air of the world.1

  • 2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 158.
  • 3 Ibid., pp. 158-159.

1If Balzac, Sainte-Beuve and most French writers are intensely French, the Goncourt brothers are essentially Parisian. They are the most “limited” writers in time and in space James ever met: “If time with these writers,” he writes, “terminates at about 1730, space comes to a stop at the limits of Paris.”2 Following the fashion of the time they proceed as painters. They reproduce what they see in little miniatures of the highest finish and they conceive of the novel as of a succession of such miniatures. They are great artists as far as visual observation is concerned but their art is superficial and the subjects they choose are morally and physically disagreeable. There is something “ineffably odd,” James remarks, in the spectacle of those elegant erudites choosing to depict the life of gross and ignorant people, bringing their “highly complex and artificial method—the fruit of culture, and leisure, and luxury—to bear upon the crudities and maladies of life, and pick out choice morsels of available misery upon their gold pen-points.”3 He considers them as highly characteristic of the French culture of their time, as products of the surrounding atmosphere. They have to the highest degree a sense of the picturesque but this seems to have killed the spiritual sense and to have reduced to nothing the moral concern:

  • 4 Ibid., p. 162.

They represent the analysis of sensation raised to its highest powers, and that is apparently the most original thing that the younger French imaginative literature has achieved. But from them as from Gustave Flaubert the attentive reader receives an indefinable impression of perverted ingenuity and wasted power. The sense of the picturesque has somehow killed the spiritual sense; the moral side of the work is dry and thin.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 165.

2Edmond de Goncourt’s La Fille Elisa, for instance, which James reviewed in 1877 for the Nation, is surprisingly unpleasant, and the writer’s fault “is not that he is serious or historical or scientific or instructive, but that he is intolerably unclean.”5 The two brothers are also characteristic of their time and culture in the way they make light of the writer’s private life. The problem of the personal life of the artist is raised once again by the publication of their Journal, which James reviewed in 1888. They have done for themselves what Maxime Du Camp did for Flaubert when he disclosed the latter’s private life in his Souvenirs Littéraires and let the world know, among other things, that Flaubert had epileptic fits. James cannot help feeling ill at ease when reading this, and the Goncourts’ revelations of personal character disturb his judgment about their literary performance. Speaking elsewhere of that particular French characteristic, he mentions them as examples:

  • 6 Introduction to Loti’s Impressions, pp. 7-8.

Full of suggestion on this head, for instance, is the manner in which the brothers Goncourt live, in their extraordinary Journal, up to the last penny of that part of their income which might have been supposed to be most peculiarly personal, paying it out, on the spot, without, as one may say, so much as passing it through their moral bank.6

  • 7 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 215.

3James is also disturbed by their ferocity, their lack of sympathy, especially in their attack on Sainte-Beuve, whom they represent as a pétit mercier de province en partie fine. It is a pity, he says, that artists capable of making such delicate miniatures should not have carried their delicacy a little further. Sainte-Beuve does not suffer much at their hands and “if their ambition was to make Sainte-Beuve odious it has suffered the injury that we are really more disagreeably affected by the character of the attack.”7 The same lack of generosity can be found in their description of the Dîner Magny—which they seem to have attended only to entertain the readers afterwards at the expense of their colleagues—and in their portraits of people who are supposed to be their friends. Their behaviour towards Madame de Païva prompts James to reflect on the particular character of French gallantry:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 219.

Does not this misdemeanour of MM. de Goncourt perhaps represent, where women are concerned, a national as well as a personal tendency—a tendency which introduces the strangest of complications into the French theory of gallantry? Our Anglo-Saxon theory has only one face, while the French appears to have two; with “Make love to her” as it were, on one side and “Tue-la” on the other.8

  • 9 Notebooks, p. 82.
  • 10 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 226.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 208.

4James is disgusted with Edmond de Goncourt’s attitude towards Princess Mathilde Bonaparte and he wonders how he could lack delicacy to the point of handing over to publicity—after having stayed in the Princess’s house for days—the whole record of his relation with her as well as information about her behaviour and private life. James always reacted violently to that kind of indelicacy. It gave him the theme of The Reverberator, which appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine from February to July of the same year. On 17 November 1887, he had written in his Notebooks that he had been struck the year before by a young American’s writing to the New York World a letter about the Venetian society whose hospitality she had just been enjoying.9 His insistence on the question of privacy in his review of the brothers’ Journal shows that it was still present to his mind. If they were ferocious towards most people around them they spared Gautier, who was the object of their sympathy and whom they found the most typical figure in the literary circle of their time. This, James ironically remarks, illuminates their intellectual perspective. For all his tenderness for Gautier’s memory James must confess that this writer’s lack of imagination was such that he could certainly not pass for one of the first. After pointing out the defects of the Journal James agrees that “when we meet them on their own ground, that of the perception of feature and expression, that of translation of the printed and published text of life, they are altogether admirable.”10 They are painters but no analysts. They never picture the agitations of the soul. Madame Gervaisais, for instance, is the exhibition of the Rome of our senses rather than the history of a life. Their images, their evocations are not immediate. Unlike Maupassant, they deal essentially with shades and never give us anything like a rough delineation. But even as painters they are limited: the country, though an important part of the visible world, does not attract them in the least. In the eyes of the English, James writes, this is particularly significant. Their whole work lacks space and air: “We end with the sensation of a closed room, of a want of ventilation.”11 The Goncourts themselves, James adds, probably suffered from the same inconvenience and that explains why their Journal is merely the record of resentment.

  • 12 The Next Time, Complete Tales, IX, 220.

5No doubt James’s attitude towards the Goncourts is that of the well-bred New-England gentleman who shrinks from tactlessness, but it is also that of the true artist who hates any kind of low journalism. The Goncourts’ revelations about their own private life and about that of their friends are of the cheapest kind and have done their reputation as artists irreparable damage. Neither Ray Limbert in The Next Time nor James himself when he had to write for the New York Tribune could accept to stoop so low, and they lost their job because they were not personal and “chatty” enough for their public. “You can’t make a sow’s ear of a silk purse,”12 the narrator of The Next Time remarks. But the ungenerous, paltry Journal makes the existence of the silk purse highly hypothetical in the Goncourts’ case. A book is the expression of a temperament and the ill-humour of the brothers reveals a flaw in their character which is also fatal to their art. Not all writers have George Sand’s grace and can afford to be indiscreet with impunity. However high they may have raised the analysis of sensation, the Goncourts, because they lacked tact and generosity and above all the indispensable feeling for life and sympathy with their subject, have only produced a dessicated work in which the spiritual sense has been completely sacrificed.


1 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 119.

2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 158.

3 Ibid., pp. 158-159.

4 Ibid., p. 162.

5 Ibid., p. 165.

6 Introduction to Loti’s Impressions, pp. 7-8.

7 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 215.

8 Ibid., p. 219.

9 Notebooks, p. 82.

10 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 226.

11 Ibid., p. 208.

12 The Next Time, Complete Tales, IX, 220.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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