By: Fereshteh Priou
2019 marked the 100-year anniversary of Proust receiving the Goncourt Prize for “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs,” translated as “Within the Budding Grove” though more accurately translated in other English versions as “In the Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower.” The book is the second volume of Proust’s seven volume tome, “In Search of Lost Time”, and was his first book published in 1918 by Gallimard Publishing House. The prize was awarded to Proust in December of 1919, making him its 17th recipient. Gallimard Publishing House celebrated this anniversary all year with various exhibitions and talks in their Gallerie Gallimard in Paris.
Le Prix Goncourt, one of the most prestigious of French literary prizes, was established in 1903 by Edmond de Goncourt. He and his brother Jules authored the Goncourt Journal, a diary of their life among the Parisian society of the late 19th century and a candid account with detailed records of every happening at these gatherings. The Goncourt brothers were literary collaborators, writing, reviewing, and rewriting their literary diaries to the point that it was not possible to attribute the writing specifically to one of them. In fact, they were known by the portmanteau “Juledmond”.
Originally Jules was the one known for his literary talents, but he died prematurely at the age of forty from syphilis. For a time, Edmond abandoned the journal. He eventually started it again and some have said that the quality of writing became better with Edmond doing it on his own. The journal which was quite popular was also thought to be a gossipy writing preoccupied with chronicling the banalities of the artistic and literary society. The journals detail the artists and authors manners, conversations, backbiting, bad-mouthing and competitive rivalry. Regardless some considered it the best historical source of the Parisian artistic life in the last half of the 19th century.
Before his death in 1896, Edmond de Goncourt founded and donated his estate to an organization which later became the Académie Goncourt. This was done in the honor of his brother, Jules and in an effort to encourage and promote French literature, but also because he disagreed with certain policies of the Académie Française. The prize was then established by the Académie Goncourt and has been awarded since 1903 to the best creative and original writing judged by ten members of the Académie, called les Dix or “the Ten”.
The Ten meet on the first Tuesday of every month in the upscale restaurant Drouant, on the second floor in a special room named Salon Goncourt. The restaurant is located at Place Gaillon, in the heart of Paris near Opera, and is frequented by business people. The cutlery or couverts the Ten use while dining, are passed from the outgoing member to the new incoming one with the new member's name added to the engravings of the previous members’ names on the fork and knife. This symbolizes the physical continuity of the Académie .
Presently the Académie is led by Bernard Pivot, a journalist and TV personality known for his weekly literary program Apostrophes, which ran on Antenne 2 from 1975 to 1990. He is the first non-author to preside at the Académie, but he is nevertheless an influential French literary figure. His show was the most watched TV show in France and guests included intellectuals, politicians, and historians, who would come to discuss their books. At the end of each show, the guests were asked to answer to the famous Proust Questionnaire which would reveal their personalities to the viewers. Appearing on the show would guarantee huge book sales for these authors.
Apart from Bernard Pivot, many other famous personalities were members of the Goncourt Académie. Authors; Colette, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Hervé Bazin, Sacha Guitry and Louis Aragon, to name a few, were all members. Pivot announced on December 3 that he plans to resign from his position. No successor has yet been announced. The amount of the prize given to the winner is insignificant - about 10 Euros and roughly the same amount given since its inception in 1903. Despite the negligible prize money, the prestige guarantees subsequent book sales that could earn the winner millions.
The prize has been traditionally given to younger authors, therefore it was unusual that Proust won it in 1919, but because “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur” was Proust’s first book to get published, the members approved it. Interestingly enough, Proust had mocked the Goncourt brothers and their style of writing on several occasions, specifically in a satirical article called “The Lemoine Affair” published in 1907 in Le Figaro. The article is a collection of pastiches narrating the affair of fake diamonds made by Henri Lemoine. The parody is written in the style of various famous authors, among them Zola, Balzac and the Goncourts. It is interesting to note that Proust himself had lost money in the scam designed by Lemoine.
Proust paid the ultimate tribute to Goncourt brothers in the last Volume of his book, “Time Regained.” Talking about Goncourt writing, the narrator of the book says; “Goncourt knew how to listen as he knew how to observe and I do not.” He praises Goncourt’s ability to recount the banalities spoken by distinguished men and women of art and literature. He finds himself incapable of doing the same because he lacks the ability of listening and observing as Goncourt did. But in reality certain passages in Proust’s book are exactly that; the recounting of the trivialities of the society salons with all their one-upmanship and belittling that occurred. Goncourt might not have been taken seriously at the time by the literary elite, but they made a lasting mark in the world of French literature and despite his mocking remarks, Proust was proud to receive the prize.
Proust paid the ultimate tribute to the Goncourt brothers in the last Volume of his book, “Time Regained.” There the narrator says, “Goncourt knew how to listen as he knew how to observe and I do not.” He praises Goncourt’s ability to recount the banalities spoken by distinguished men and women of art and literature. Though Proust claims to lack this talent, in reality certain passages of Proust’s work seem quite similar to what the Goncourts describe: the trivialities of the society salons, with all their one-upmanship and belittling. The Goncourts might not have been taken seriously at the time by the literary elite, but they made a lasting mark in the world of French literature. And despite his mocking remarks, Proust was proud to receive the prize which became the turning point in his career as an author.
Article by: Fereshteh Priou - December 2019