1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Goncourt, De
GONCOURT, DE, a name famous in French literary history. Edmond Louis Antoine Huot de Goncourt was born at Nancy on the 26th of May 1822, and died at Champrosay on the 16th of July 1896. Jules Alfred Huot de Goncourt, his brother, was born in Paris on the 17th of December 1830, and died in Paris on the 20th of June 1870.
Writing always in collaboration, until the death of the younger, it was their ambition to be not merely novelists, inventing a new kind of novel, but historians; not merely historians, but the historians of a particular century, and of what was intimate and what is unknown in it; to be also discriminating, indeed innovating, critics of art, but of a certain section of art, the 18th century, in France and Japan; and also to collect pictures and bibelots, always of the French and Japanese 18th century. Their histories (Portraits intimes du XVIIIᵉ siècle (1857), La Femme au XVIIIᵉ siècle (1862), La du Barry (1878), &c.) are made entirely out of documents, autograph letters, scraps of costume, engravings, songs, the unconscious self-revelations of the time; their three volumes on L’Art du XVIIIᵉ siècle (1859–1875) deal with Watteau and his followers in the same scrupulous, minutely enlightening way, with all the detail of unpublished documents; and when they came to write novels, it was with a similar attempt to give the inner, undiscovered, minute truths of contemporary existence, the inédit of life. The same morbidly sensitive noting of the inédit, of whatever came to them from their own sensations of things and people around them, gives its curious quality to the nine volumes of the Journal, 1887–1896, which will remain, perhaps, the truest and most poignant chapter of human history that they have written. Their novels, Sœur Philomène (1861), Renée Mauperin (1864), Germinie Lacerteux (1865), Manette Salomon (1865), Madame Gervaisais (1869), and, by Edmond alone, La Fille Elisa (1878), Les Frères Zemganno (1879), La Faustin (1882), Chérie (1884), are, however, the work by which they will live as artists. Learning something from Flaubert, and teaching almost everything to Zola, they invented a new kind of novel, and their novels are the result of a new vision of the world, in which the very element of sight is decomposed, as in a picture of Monet. Seen through the nerves, in this conscious abandonment to the tricks of the eyesight, the world becomes a thing of broken patterns and conflicting colours, and uneasy movement. A novel of the Goncourts is made up of an infinite number of details, set side by side, every detail equally prominent. While a novel of Flaubert, for all its detail, gives above all things an impression of unity, a novel of the Goncourts deliberately dispenses with unity in order to give the sense of the passing of life, the heat and form of its moments as they pass. It is written in little chapters, sometimes no longer than a page, and each chapter is a separate notation of some significant event, some emotion or sensation which seems to throw sudden light on the picture of a soul. To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than “the physical basis of life,” and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments. The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world. French critics have complained that the language of the Goncourts is no longer French, no longer the French of the past; and this is true. It is their distinction—the finest of their inventions—that, in order to render new sensations, a new vision of things, they invented a new language. (A. Sy.)
In his will Edmond de Goncourt left his estate for the endowment of an academy, the formation of which was entrusted to MM. Alphonse Daudet and Léon Hennique. The society was to consist of ten members, each of whom was to receive an annuity of 6000 francs, and a yearly prize of 5000 francs was to be awarded to the author of some work of fiction. Eight of the members of the new academy were nominated in the will. They were: Alphonse Daudet, J. K. Huysmans, Léon Hennique, Octave Mirbeau, the two brothers J. H. Rosny, Gustave Geffroy and Paul Margueritte. On the 19th of January 1903, after much litigation, the academy was constituted, with Elémir Bourges, Lucien Descaves and Léon Daudet as members in addition to those mentioned in de Goncourt’s will, the place of Alphonse Daudet having been left vacant by his death in 1897.
On the brothers de Goncourt see the Journal des Goncourt already cited; also M. A. Belloc (afterwards Lowndes) and M. L. Shedlock, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, with Letters and Leaves from their Journals (1895); Alidor Delzant, Les Goncourt (1889) which contains a valuable bibliography; Lettres de Jules de Goncourt (1888), with preface by H. Céard; R. Doumic, Portraits d’écrivains (1892); Paul Bourget, Nouveaux Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1886); Émile Zola, Les Romanciers naturalistes (1881), &c.