On the brothers behind the prize - review by Anthony Cummins

Anthony Cummins

A Brush with the Goncourts

On the brothers behind the prize


This month sees the announcement of the Prix Goncourt, the French literary prize awarded since 1903 to the book that meets its nicely roomy criteria of the year’s ‘best and most imaginative prose work’. Previously won by Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Houellebecq, it was conceived by the novelist Edmond de Goncourt, who left his estate to fund the Académie Goncourt, which awards the prize, after his death in 1896. Altruism wasn’t quite the goal: a panicked bid to ‘save the name of Goncourt from oblivion’ (not only his name, but that of his late younger brother and co-author, Jules), the gesture was a form of slow-burn revenge for the indifference critics and readers had shown to the Goncourts’ own fiction. Their first novel had the misfortune to be published on 2 December 1851, the day of Napoleon III’s coup d’état. This set the pattern for a sense of injustice that would dog their literary endeavours. In old age, Edmond tortured himself by prowling bookshops in search of untouched copies of his novels, always with an eye for more prominently displayed books by rivals – or, worse, friends.

Calling themselves ‘Juledmond’ – Jedward eat your heart out – the Goncourts shunned salaried work in favour of eking out their inheritance. Jules would hold the pen, with Edmond standing behind him, as they each composed aloud. If anyone reads them now, it’s usually because their 22-volume Journal (a selection of which remains in print in English) is the go-to resource for dirt on 19th-century French literary life. Joris-Karl Huysmans once recalled how guests at the Goncourts’ regular gatherings habitually prolonged their stay because no one wanted to be the first to be bitched about behind their back. ‘Fat little Zola’ was a particular target. His first major success, L’Assommoir (1877), told the story of a laundrywoman, Gervaise, whose money troubles drive her to drink and prostitution before she meets a bad end in a slum stairwell. To the Goncourts, this was ‘a large-scale plagiarising’ of their 1865 novel Germinie Lacerteux, and it rankled. At a dinner in 1886 Zola sensed something amiss and invited Edmond, nearly twenty years his elder, for a word outside. ‘You ask me what it is you’ve done to me,’ Edmond cried, ‘you, you who’ve stolen from us, me and my brother, what’s ours!’

By that time Germinie Lacerteux had already been forgotten. But it’s a remarkably powerful and unsettling novel that remains worth reading. It describes the harrowing descent of a maid driven to drink and homicidal nymphomania after she falls for a shopkeeper’s son who strings her along for the few extra francs she puts his way. Luridly voyeuristic yet sympathetically tender, it’s a book of yo-yoing contradictions, sustained by a manic sense of tension, whether the luckless heroine is stalking a love rival, ready to douse her in acid, or panicking about how to slip out of work to tend to her gravely ill baby, born in secret. Germinie’s inner turmoil is centre stage, but the novel also offers a disarmingly tart record of mid-century Paris, from its dance halls to its parks, ‘where lurking in the bushes you’re as likely to find a corpse as a melon skin!’

One review called it ‘chiselled slime’. Even the Goncourts found the novel nauseating: so disgusted were they by it, they couldn’t bear to look at the proofs. The reason was that little in the novel was invented. In the summer of 1862 they had left Paris in the hope that country air would ease the pleurisy that dogged their housekeeper, Rose Malingre, who had waited on them since they were boys. When she died, the brothers were rocked by the discovery (via Jules’s mistress, a midwife) that Rose had lost two babies – one stillborn, the other dead after six months – and to dull the pain had turned to drink and sex, luring in lovers with cash stolen from Edmond and Jules.

Knowing where the novel came from makes it even more compelling. Germinie cooks and cleans not for two young literary men but an age-old spinster, Sempronia de Varandeuil – a subterranean alibi, perhaps, for the brothers’ failure to notice Rose’s grief. Notably, when asked to identify Germinie’s body, Mlle de Varandeuil doesn’t run away, unlike Edmond and Jules, who, when they found themselves in her shoes, fled. Yet the degree to which they insist on her manliness feels somewhat Freudian, and part of Germinie Lacerteux’s peculiar thrill lies in the sense that the brothers were not in control of their material. Reading the Journal, it seems they didn’t even understand it. ‘For the rest of our lives we shall carry within us a mistrust of the entire female sex,’ they wrote, having learned the truth about Rose. When Edmond found himself on an omnibus beside ‘a little peasant girl who looked as if she had just arrived in Paris to go into service’ – like Germinie at the start of the novel – this is what he saw:

A little dumpling in a white bonnet. Like a goat rubbing itself against a post, or as if she were still carrying some of the fleas of her native province, she kept straightening herself against the back of her seat, shifting haunches that were already soft and lascivious and ready to slip into the limp routine of a Parisian streetwalker.

They wrote this four years after Germinie Lacerteux had been published. One Journal entry demands a ‘middle-class counter-strike’ against the ‘working-class scum’ raising the cost of living; yet Germinie Lacerteux ends with an impassioned plea to put yourself in the place of those who ‘kill themselves to furnish your luxury … the ones who sweat their days away toiling to ensure your comfort, your leisure, your wealth’. The inconsistency seems to have been a source of pride. While writing the novel, they noted that it was ‘strange indeed’ that ‘it should be we … who give ourselves up to the most austere and possibly the most repugnant study of the lower classes; and that it should be we, in whose lives women play so small a part, who have undertaken the most serious, profound and intimate examination of the sex.’ All of which is to say that Germinie Lacerteux may be the only protest novel about the position of working-class women written from the perspective of two privately wealthy men who despised both women and the working class.

The novel kept coming to mind over the summer as I read Douglas Stuart’s new novel Shuggie Bain, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. It traces the decline of an alcoholic mother in Glasgow in the 1980s from the point of the view of her son; Stuart has been open about the book’s origin in his own life. The story is brilliantly told, but the politics of the spectacle never become an issue: the suffering is safely served up for the reader’s consumption. Reading Germinie Lacerteux is more uncomfortable. It argues for a social awakening its authors actually feared; they didn’t view women or the poor as equals, and didn’t want to either.

That one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes safely bears their name perhaps only testifies to how little read they are. One can imagine Edmond and Jules being cancelled in a heartbeat (I haven’t said anything about their racism and anti-Semitism). Only last year the Prix Goncourt saw fit to exclude Yann Moix’s novel Orléans after it came to light that the author, no stranger to outrage, had once published anti-Semitic drawings in a student paper. (The book wasn’t all that good anyway, the organisers said – but they certainly didn’t want to be monstered on social media.) Can we separate art from the artist? Empathy from exploitation? Or, indeed, literary prizes from their murky pasts?

The writings of the Goncourts, whose British admirers have included Arnold Bennett and Anita Brookner, make for thought-provoking reading in our trip-wired century. There’s a chapter on Germinie Lacerteux in Erich Auerbach’s 1946 study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature which concentrates on its adversarial preface (‘Readers like novels that are false. This novel is real … If it gets slaughtered, so what?’). At that time, the curious undergraduate could pick up a translation of it thanks to a postwar fervour for racy French novels. But it dropped out of the Penguin Classics range forty years ago and the only option now seems to be an iffy-looking print-on-demand version of a slightly fusty Edwardian translation, available for nothing on Project Gutenberg.

I should perhaps declare an interest. Late in 2008 I was asked to translate Germinie Lacerteux for a firm that specialised in publishing forgotten classics in smart little editions introduced by star names. It was to be published in time for the following year’s Prix Goncourt; Ken Loach agreed to write a preface. Along came the deadline. He was ready, and so was the cover, but not so the translation (same as my advance, but that’s another story). Loach couldn’t hang around – something about filming commitments – and my long-wrestled-with translation, six months late once I hit send, vanished into the cracks opened up by a succession of managerial changes at the publisher (in 2016, it announced a new translation of a novella by Saddam Hussein, with the title ‘War of Thrones’). The Goncourts, at least, would have expected nothing more, or so I tell myself anyway.

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