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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Two Famous Men
By Edmond (1822–1896) and Jules (1830–1870) de Goncourt
 
From the Journal of the de Goncourts

MARCH 3D [1862].—We took a walk and went off to find Théophile Gautier…. The street in which he lives is composed of the most squalid countrified buildings, of court-yards swarming with poultry, fruit shops whose doors are ornamented with little brooms of black feathers: just such a suburban street as Hervier might have painted…. We pushed open the door of a house, and found ourselves in the presence of the lord of epithet. The furniture was of gilded wood, covered with red damask, after the heavy Venetian style; there were fine old pictures of the Italian school; above the chimney a mirror innocent of quicksilver, on which were scraped colored arabesques and various Persian characters,—such a picture of meagre sumptuousness and faded splendor as one would find in the rooms of a retired actress, who had come in for some pictures through the bankruptcy of an Italian manager.  1
  When we asked him if we were disturbing him, he answered: “Not at all. I never work at home. I get through my ‘copy’ at the printing-office. They set up the type as I write. The smell of the printers’ ink is a sure stimulant to work, for one feels the ‘copy’ must be handed in. I could write only a novel in this way now; unless I saw ten lines printed I could not get on to the next ten. The proof-sheet serves as a test to one’s work. That which is already done becomes impersonal, but the actual ‘copy’ is part of yourself; it hangs like filaments from the root of your literary life, and has not yet been torn away. I have always been preparing corners where I should do my work, but when installed there I found I could do nothing. I must be in the midst of things, and can work only when a racket is going on about me; whereas, when I shut myself up for work the solitude tells upon me and makes me sad.”  2
  From there Gautier got on the subject of the ‘Queen of Sheba.’ We admitted our infirmity, our physical incapacity of taking in musical sound; and indeed, a military band is the highest musical enjoyment of which we are capable. Whereupon Gautier said, “Well, I’m delighted to hear that: I am just like you; I prefer silence to music. I do know bad music from good, because part of my life was spent with a singer, but both are quite indifferent to me. Still it is curious that all the literary men of our day feel the same about music. Balzac abhorred it, Hugo cannot endure it, Lamartine has a horror of it. There are only a few painters who have a taste for it.”  3
  Then Gautier fell to complaining of the times. “Perhaps I am getting an old man, but I begin to feel as if there were no more air to breathe. What is the use of wings if there is no air in which one can soar? I no longer feel as if I belonged to the present generation. Yes, 1830 was a glorious epoch, but I was too young by two or three years; I was not carried away by the current; I was not ready for it. I ought to have produced a very different sort of work.”  4
  There was then some talk of Flaubert, of his literary methods, of his indefatigable patience, and of the seven years he devoted to a work of four hundred pages. “Just listen,” observed Gautier, “to what Flaubert said to me the other day: ‘It is finished. I have only ten more pages to write; but the ends of my sentences are all in my head.’ So that he already hears in anticipation the music of the last words of his sentences before the sentences themselves have been written. Was it not a quaint expression to use? I believe he has devised a sort of literary rhythm. For instance, a phrase which begins in slow measure must not finish with a quick pace, unless some special effect is to be produced. Sometimes the rhythm is only apparent to himself, and escapes our notice. A story is not written for the purpose of being read aloud: yet he shouts his to himself as he writes them. These shouts present to his own ears harmonies, but his readers seem unaware of them.”  5
  Gautier’s daughters have a charm of their own, a species of Oriental languor, deep dreamy eyes, veiled by heavy eyelids, and a regularity in their gestures and movements which they inherit from their father; but this regularity is tempered in them by womanly grace. There is a charm about them which is not all French; nevertheless there is a French element about it, their little tomboyish tricks and expressions, their habit of pouting, the shrugging of their shoulders, the irony which escapes through the thin veil of childishness intended to conceal it. All these points distinguish them from ordinary society girls, and make clear a strong individuality of character which renders them fearless in expressing their likings and antipathies. They display liberty of speech, and have often the manner of a woman whose face is hidden by a mask; and yet one finds here simplicity, candor, and a charming absence of reserve, utterly unknown to the ordinary young girl.  6
 
  NOVEMBER 23D [1863].—We have been to thank Michelet for the flattering lines he wrote about us.  7
  He lives in the Rue de l’Ouest, at the end of the Jardin du Luxembourg, in a large house which might almost be workmen’s dwellings. His flat is on the third floor. A maid opened the door and announced us. We penetrated into a small study.  8
  The wife of the historian has a young, serious face; she was seated on a chair beside the desk on which the lamp was placed, with her back to the window. Michelet sat on a couch of green velvet, and was banked up by cushions.  9
  His attitude reminded us of his historical work: the lower portions of his body were in full sight, whilst the upper were half concealed; the face was a mere shadow surrounded with snowy white locks; from this shadowy mass emerged a professorial, sonorous, singsong voice, consciously important, and in which the ascending and descending scale produced a continuous cooing sound.  10
  He spoke to us in a most appreciative manner of our study of Watteau, and then passed on to the interesting study which might be written on French furniture.  11
  “You gentlemen, who are observers of human nature,” he cried suddenly, “there is a history you should write,—the history of the lady’s-maid. I do not speak of Madame de Maintenon; but you have Mademoiselle de Launai, the Duchesse de Grammont’s Julie, who exercised on her mistress so great an influence, especially in the Corsican affair. Madame Du Deffand said sometimes that there were only two people sincerely attached to her, d’Alembert and her maid. Oh! domesticity has played a great part in history, though men-servants have been of comparative unimportance….  12
  “I was once going through England, traveling from York to Halifax. There were pavements in the country lanes, with the grass growing on each side as carefully kept as the pavements themselves; close by, sheep were grazing, and the whole scene was lit up by gas. A singular sight!”  13
  Then after a short pause:—“Have you noticed that the physiognomy of the great men of to-day is so rarely in keeping with their intellect? Look at their portraits, their photographs: there are no longer any good portraits. Remarkable people no longer possess in their faces anything which distinguishes them from ordinary folk. Balzac had nothing characteristic. Would you recognize Lamartine if you saw him? There is nothing in the shape of his head, or in his lustreless eyes, nothing but a certain elegance which age has not affected. The fact is that in these days there is too great an accumulation of people and things, much more so than in former times. We assimilate too much from other people, and this being the case, we lose even the individuality of our features; we present the portrait of a collective set of people rather than of ourselves.”  14
  We rose to take our leave; he accompanied us to the door; then by the light of the lamp he carried in his hand we saw, for a second at least, this marvelous historian of dreams, the great somnambulist of the past and brilliant talker of the present.  15
 
 
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