The bothers Goncourt, Edmond and Jules, were nobly born. They were rich. But they had the misfortune to be intelligent. Therefore, they were unhappy. They wanted to be famous; they longed to be eminent authors, princes in the realm of literature; they yearned for immortality. Together, they wrote novels and plays which made a certain impression in their time but which are now forgotten, surviving only on library shelves and in course on nineteenth-century French literature. In spite of all their efforts and aspirations, they died unsatisfied and sad. Jules of syphilis in 1870 and Edmond of old age in 1896. But before they died, they designed their monuments: a record and an institution.
The institution was the Academie Goncourt. This was a piece of monumental snobbery. Jules and Edmond had failed to be elected to the Academy, the Academie Francaise, in whose forty chairs sit the gold-braided peers, saints and guardians of French culture. Therefore they created an Academy of their own, which still exists. In imitation of its founders, it does no hard, regular work, but confers magisterial awards of approbation and money upon French authors, some of whom have been a good deal more eloquent and imaginative than Jules and Edmond but who, like warriors kneeling before a plasied ” roi faineant,” feel they have really achieved a new distinction.
The record was the Goncourt “Journal” , that remarkable literary document ; as soon as the brothers started to go out together into literary circles and into “society,” they began to keep a joint daybook, recording conversations and gossip, criticizing new plays, estimating new personalities. It is a vivid and pungent piece of writing and an almost unforgettable thing to read. They began it together in 1851, with a horribly elaborate sentence as an overture. In December of that year Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, duly elected president of the French Republic, had just arrested the leaders of the chief political parties, dismissed the legislature, and made himself dictator; the event which was the subject of their first paragraph.
Together,they kept their diary for nearly twenty years. Jules did most of the actual writing, but both supplied the material and shaped the phrases. Even after Jules died, the chain of habit was too strong to break, and Edmond continued the journal alone, keeping it faithfully until his death. In his later years he issued nine volumes of extracts from it, which were very ill received: few of his acquaintances enjoyed having their indiscretions recorded and repeated and their characters dissected with a red-hot scalpel. The entire Journal, whose manuscript was preserved in the French National Library, did not appear for more than a century after it was begun.