|About the Book|
Quite bad. When it comes to the heroine (or patient or inmate), Germinie, based on their real-life housekeeper, an irreproachable retainer posthumously revealed to have stolen money and wine to fund a secret life of debauchery and support a rogue’s gallery of gigolos, the Goncourt brothers have command of but two styles: that of a detective baldly noting the comings and goings of a mark under surveillance- and that of a smug old timey psychologist, righteous with phrenology or eugenics, composing a floridly prejudiced case history of some helpless imbecile. Some pages of the novel are downright repulsive in their condescension—but instructively so. This novel showed me what the delicate, and deeply humane, clinical-lyrical balance of Madame Bovary looks like in less talented hands, when reduced to a merely generic feature of “realism” or “naturalism.” Germinie Lacerteux is congeneric with Madame Bovary—both “the story of what the French call déchéance, the relentless moral and physical destruction of an individual”—but the Goncourts’ have little of the vulnerability and empathy that make Flaubert’s narrative absorbing and his heroine a person you know. (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”—Flaubert told Jules and Edmond about the stomach pains and crying jags that afflicted his writing of Emma’s death scene, a revelation for which the brothers had nothing but contempt.) The Goncourts seem content to pass along all the Late Romantic 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 action is merely summarized, neatly packaged, recounted at a gossipy, speculative second-hand. Germinie is dead on the page—this novel is not a bit more interesting than the entries in the Journal devoted to her original, Rose.And yet...Germinie Lacerteux has its pleasures. Germinie’s wastrel lovers, for instance. I was on the point of laying the book aside when the advent of Jupillon, the androgynous momma’s boy, sponging prole dandy and tavern idol, convinced me to keep at it. Jupillon is no more vivid a character than Germinie, but he twitches with a vile animation when touched with the Goncourts’ galvanic misanthropy. A glovemaker’s apprentice who works in the shop window, he preens and pouts while on view to the passersby, and at night, in the music halls, where he’s petted and plied with drinks by fishwives and shawl-menders and depilatresses, parades “certain 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.” He gets tons of women pregnant. The Goncourts also have a great eye for landscape, from shabby suburban resorts—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—to a grimy, infernal, streetwalkers’ Paris, where “the glow from a street-lamp ooze[s] over the livid plaster of the houses” and every prospect includes a hospital, a slaughterhouse, and a cemetery- a kerosene-lit surgical amphitheater, Le Sang des bêtes, the pauper’s anonymous pit. And as befits two of France’s great collectors of bibelots and objets d’art (in 1880 Edmond published La Maison d’un artiste, a loving and lyrical inventory of his collections), historian-aesthetes whose genius was perhaps better suited to the conjuring of ghosts from eighteenth century ephemera than the creation of contemporary characters (their art criticism is awesome), the Goncourts know how to poetically shadow everyday objects. Here’s the villainous currency Germinie has 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.I feel strange recommending a 1-star book, but people who like the famous Goncourt Journal and remain curious about the novels whose neglect the brothers bemoan will definitely get something out of Germinie Lacerteux- as will fans of Zola, perhaps—the brothers were always bitching that the younger and more celebrated Zola plagiarized them. I’m inclined to believe Zola improved what he stole, but I haven’t read him. Need to get on that. At the very least, everyone should read Pages from the Goncourt Journal.