What’s the Use?


Arts & Culture

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.


Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.”

Despite, if not because of, the cattiness that permeates each page, the Goncourt brothers created a powerful record of the quest for literary immortality, one that deals frankly with the looming specter of death. Edmond de Goncourt outlived many writers—among them his own brother, who died in 1872—and his records, in particular, demonstrate an obsession with death as celebrity’s shadow. For Edmond, fame is at once closely dogged by death and the only thing that can outstrip it.

In 1861, attending the death of Henri Murger, the Goncourts noted that all their literary comrades seem to fall to the same syphilitic ends:

Death sometimes strikes me as a cruel jest, a joke played by some pitiless deity … this death by decomposition, in which everything in Murger’s life and the world which he depicted is combined: the orgies of work at night, the periods of poverty followed by periods of junketing, the neglected cases of pox, the ups and downs of an existence without a home, the suppers instead of dinners and the glasses of absinthe bringing consolation after a visit to the pawnshop; everything which wears a man out, burns him up and kills him.

Indeed, almost all the great writers the Goncourts met were obsessed with the inevitability of their own deaths; each turn in health was meticulously documented and discussed at the table. Thus, in 1882, a civilized dinner collapses into hysterics of hypochondria:

The meal began gaily enough but then Turgenev started talking about a constriction of the heart which had happened to him a few nights before, together with the nightmare vision of a large brown stain which, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, he had recognized as Death. Whereupon Zola began enumerating the morbid phenomena which made him afraid that he would never be able to finish the eleven novels which he still had to write. And Daudet said, “As for me, there was a week when I felt so full of life that I could almost have hugged the trees. Then one night without nay warning, without any pain, I felt something sticky and tasteless in my mouth … and after that clot, blood came gushing out three times … a torn lung … and since then, I can’t spit in my handkerchief without looking to see if there isn’t some of that damned blood there!” And each of us in turn spoke of the fear of death that haunted us.

Again and again, we watch as the best of French letters become preoccupied with an illness—often, though not always, brought on by venereal disease or drink—hold court on a deathbed, and then succumb. Théophile Gautier, Flaubert, Turgenev himself—all these and more have perished by the journal’s last entry.

What Daudet and Zola feared was not simply dying but dying forgotten: their stories swallowed up by a city so in thrall to its burgeoning celebrity culture that not even election to the Académie Francaise can assure more than a few decades’ remembrance. Fame—lasting fame, in an era where literary darlings might become pariahs overnight—becomes the only means of bridging the gap. Thus, in 1885, Edmond de Goncourt recorded Alphonse Daudet’s recollection that “It was the [Franco-Prussian] war … which had changed him, by awakening in him the idea that he might die without leaving anything during behind him … only then had he set to work, and with work had come literary ambition.”

Not that death is treated with much solemnity. In one bleakly comic scene, a courtesan idly recalls “when we went out in that filthy weather to see the place where Gérard de Nerval hanged himself” while her companion laughs off the fact that she’s “committed suicide three times.” Funerals become set pieces of their own: the Goncourts note who attends, in what order, and why, as if chronicling the equivalent of the Met Ball. Théophile de Gautier’s funeral, in 1872, is

full of base admirers, anonymous colleagues, and scribblers in cheap rags, who were all escorting the journalist and not the poet, not the author of Mademoiselle de Maupin. For my part, it seems to me that my corpse would loathe having that pen-pushing rabble behind its coffin, and all I ask for when my turn comes is the company of the men of talent to the day and the six earnest cobblers who attended Heine’s funeral.

Death was the means by which literary and social hierarchies were codified. Then again, it was also, for some, the only means through which the hierarchy could shift. After the death of Victor Hugo, Edmond de Goncourt wrote that Emile Zola was, to his eye, “relieved by the death,” for with it came “the thought that he was going to inherit the literary papacy.”

Émile Zola.

In Zola—whom we follow from 1868 to 1896, when Edmond de Goncourt died—the obsession with success as immortality reached its zenith. “It’s so hard to make a name for oneself,” he cries in the first entry to cover him. In 1872, we learn, he worked “every day from nine until half-past twelve and from three until eight”: “‘I have to work like that,’ he told me … ‘the place of willpower is taken by an obsession—an obsession which would make me ill if I didn’t obey it.’ ” Yet as Zola’s star rose, he only became more miserable, more obstinate in his demands for recognition:

What a whiner that fat, pot-bellied young man is, and how quickly he falls into a melancholy mood … he had begun painting the gloomiest of pictures of his youth … of the insults that were heaped upon him, of the suspicion with which he was regarded … “I shall never be decorated! I shall never receive any kind of honor in recognition of my talent. For the public I shall always be a pariah! A pariah!”

“Life,” as Edmond himself put it,

really is cleverly arranged so that nobody is happy. Here is a man whose name echoes around the world, who sells a hundred thousand copies of every book he writes, who has perhaps caused a greater stir in his lifetime than any other author, and yet, with his sickly constitution and his melancholy state of mind, he is unhappier than the most abject of failures.

We can sense Goncourt beginning to wonder whether literary immortality can really outpace death after all. At no point did this note of ambiguity sound more strongly than in 1870, when Jules de Gourmont, the younger of the brothers, died at thirty-nine. “At first,” Edmond wrote during Jules’s illness,

I felt inclined to close this journal at [Jules’s] last entry. “Why continue this book?” I asked myself. “My literary career is over, my literary ambition dead.” I feel now as I felt then, but I also find a certain consolation in recounting to myself the story of these months of despair, this death-agony. Perhaps too I am impelled by a vague desire to capture the poignancy of it all for friends of his memory. Why? I cannot tell, but it is a kind of obsession. I resume this journal, then, with the help of notes jotted down during my nights of distress, notes comparable to those cries by which we relieve the pain of great physical suffering.

Goncourt’s tone in these passages is markedly different from the supercilious voice that characterizes both his later solo output and his earlier collaborations with Jules. It’s vulnerable, even simplistic—and it’s a moving change to witness. Early in his brother’s illness, after all, Edmond regarded the promise of a painful death as an embarrassment as much as anything else: “The first day that I had sensed he was irrevocably stricken, my pride, the pride I felt in us both, had said to me: ‘it would be best for him to die.’ ” But the experience of Jules’s illness changes Edmond’s mind: “Now I ask to be allowed to keep him, however crippled in mind and body he may be as the result of this attack, and I ask that on my knees.” Thus, those early descriptions of literary scandals give way to some of the most moving passages in the journal:

I felt so wretched, so angry and irritated, that I could not control myself and went out, telling him not to wait for up me because I did not know when I should be back … I rang the bell and when the door opened I saw at the head of the stairs my beloved brother who had got out of bed in his nightshirt and heard his voice gently asking all manner of affectionate questions. It is impossible to express the almost stupid joy I felt at the revelation of a heart in whose existence I had ceased to believe.

The idea of “stupid joy” coming from a man who considered himself a kind of arbiter of intelligence is a striking one. At his brother’s deathbed, Edmond treats death not as the final adjudication of literary genius, but as a moment where such genius is ultimately irrelevant, paltry in the shadow of death. “What,” he asks, on Jules’s last night alive, “is this expiation of which we are the victims? This is what I ask myself as I look back over this life which has only a few hours left to it; this life which has derived nothing from existence but bitterness, nothing from literature and the laborious quest for fame but insults, contempt, and abuse; this life which for five years has been struggling daily with physical pain and is about to end in mental and physical agony?” It’s telling that, nearing death, Jules “found it impossible to remember the title of a single one of his novels.”

Edmond’s epiphany appears to have been short lived. His later diary entries are no less full of snobbery, bons mots, and soaring accounts of pettiness than the earlier ones. But again and again, Edmond returns to the same question: Does the inevitability of death justify his coterie’s obsession with a literary afterlife, or does it negate the entire process?

As Edmond records in July of 1883, Turgenev—himself fated to die two months later—muses, “I find that I’m obsessed by the idea of continuing after my death, of outliving myself, of leaving behind pictures … but what is the use?” In the journal, we find so many “pictures”—portraits of artists, of writers, of the fading glory of nineteenth-century Paris and the hyperactive rise of mass-media celebrity culture alike. And it’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to take Turgenev’s wondering “what is the use?” with a grain of salt. We know precisely how much influence Turgenev, Zola, and others have wielded from the grave. But the journal never fails to remind us that even literary immortality is only a bandage over the septic reality of death. In our final moments, after all, we forget the names of all of our novels.

Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Al Jazeera America, the BBC, the Atlantic, and more. She is working on a doctorate in theology and literature at Trinity College, Oxford, and has recently completed a novel.