This is the second Brothers Goncourt novel I’ve read (after Germinie Lacerteux), and the only other one I’ve been able to track down in English. It’s different and similar to Germinie Lacerteux: different, in that it’s about the wealthier classes, rather than those scraping by on the edge of destitution; similar, in that it has what I take to be sensationalist social elements, and once again deals with the position of women within society (though not this time quite as graphically).
Renée Mauperin is the pampered youngest daughter, the apple of her father’s eye, a playful child of innocence and wonder – and now she’s reached a certain age (twenty-ish), it’s about time she got married. That is, after all, her purpose in life. In fact, she’s exactly like Effi Briest. But luckily Renée sees things differently from Effi – or at least, she takes matters into her own hands – and is extremely rude to and contemptuous of anyone her parents bring to court her; so maybe this novel isn’t going to turn out so dreary and miserable. On the other hand, what’s the point in making a character so wonderfully innocent if you’re not subsequently going to destroy her; it would just be a waste. So suddenly, from a marriage drama, the story takes some unexpected turns, into a world of dubious morality you weren’t quite expecting (though naturally, if you’ve already read Germinie Lacerteux, you’d hardly be surprised). Oh, and this being a novel about the aristocracy, of course there’s a duel.
What’s striking about Renée Mauperin is its form: its use of dialogue in particular. It begins in the middle of a dialogue: and I mean this: right in the middle of a conversation, with no context as to who is speaking to whom, or what world these people are living in. No, not even the characters names; nothing, for three pages, except dialogue. Then a bit of descriptive context; then more dialogue; a bit more context; a bit more dialogue; and then finally, at the end of the first chapter, we learn that one of these characters is in fact Renée. The second chapter then is a brief history of the Mauperin family. And so in fact the whole novel goes on: a cast of characters just appears chatting away among themselves, and every now and then the Goncourts throw in something about the background of the characters – so that, for instance, a character called Denoisel, who is a fairly major character all the way through, isn’t really “introduced” until about 100 pages in.
The dialogue is very naturalistic too: the Goncourt seems to enjoy its stream-of-consciousness aspects (I have also been reading Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister recently, which is just about its opposite, so it was a pleasing contrast). There’s a nice scene, for instance, in which two men are playing billiards, and their conversation keeps switching between their reflections and reminiscences of revolutionary times, and ongoing state of play on the baize. People cut across one another, aren’t listening to one another, just leave their sentences hanging unfinished. Obviously I have this idea that the Goncourt themselves lived in a world that was just one long gossipy conversation, so perhaps none of this should be too suprising.
The ending’s a bit long and drawn though. And it is all just a copy of Zola, even if it happens they were writing before him (in this case, 1864).