[It’s purely a coincidence of course, but I notice this is the third co-written book I’ve reviewed in a row.]
Let’s start with the Goncourts’ own apology for their novel, from the preface:
We must ask the reader’s forgiveness for giving him this book, and warn him of what he will find in it.
He likes false novels; this is a true one.
He likes books that appear to move in high society; this book comes out of the street.
He likes spicy little works, memoirs of street-walkers, bedroom confessions, erotic smuttiness, scandals that hitch up their skirts in pictures in bookshop windows; what he is going to read is severe and pure. He need not expect half-naked photographs of pleasure; the study which follows is a clinical picture of Love.
The average reader also likes anodyne, consoling reading, adventures with a happy ending, tales that do not disturb digestion or serenity; this book, with its violent and unhappy story, is calculated to upset his habits and his idea of a healthy life.
There’s a nice Stendhalian tone to it, I’m sure you’ll agree (if they weren’t condemned to the c19th, you’d feel it was almost Rourkian/Mitchelmoreian in its contempt for the typical novel and novel-reader). And the Goncourts pretty much live up to their promises. This is c19th realism is its purest form: challenging, upsetting, radical, unashamedly anti-bourgeois.
The plot: a woman employs a maid. This maid is, at the beginning of the book, a model of working-class respectability, but due to her love for a scoundrel, who both exploits her and extorts money from her, she descends into a mire of vice: alcoholism, petty theft, illegitimate children – all of which she keeps from her employer. That’s pretty much it.
Naturally one can’t but be reminded by all this of Zola, of L’Assommoir in particular, which recounts (at much more tiresome length) a tale of precisely the same trajectory. And let me tell you, Zola isn’t any more extreme than the Goncourts. One suspects the big Z himself would have taken equal delight in the passage in which the adolescent Germinie is sent out to work, finds herself surrounded and tormented by the coarse sexual suggestiveness of men, receives consolation from one older man, who then repays her trust by raping her. If only the Goncourts had believed a bit more in the animalism of human sexual desire and the inherited nature of character traits – ; but their work is unfortunately unencumbered by such dogma.
Perhaps the degradation of Germinie goes on a bit long and becomes a bit repetitive, but there’s a lot of good stuff in the novel: who cannot enjoy a novel in which love acts as a purely destructive force, ruining a person physically, psychologically and morally? The opening sections about Germinie’s mistress, her own degradation suffered as a result of the Revolution, are also very enjoyable – and now I think of it, no doubt there was an obvious counter-point here which I hadn’t at the time considered. [It’s very useful at times, to review books. You seem suddenly much cleverer than you were when you were reading them.]
I’d like to read some more of the Goncourts’ novels, but – aside from Renée Mauperin – I’m not entirely sure they’re available in English.