In France there is a prestigious literary prize called the Le prix Goncourt, which is awarded each December to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. The winner is decided by a panel of ten prominent writers known as the Académie Goncourt after its founder, the writer and publisher Edmond de Goncourt (1822–1896) and his brother Jules de Goncourt (1830–1870).
I looked up the current membership list of the Académie Goncourt and found that I have recently read books by two of them: L’allée du Roi, a novel about Madame de Maintenon by Françoise Chandernagor and Les mots de la vie (The words of life) by Bernard Pivot, who used to be well known as the host of a weekly literature program on French television.
The winner for 2017 was Éric Vuillard for his book L’ordre du jour (The agenda), which was chosen despite the fact that it is not a work of fiction, but a carefully researched récit (narrative) about a few crucial encounters in the 1930s that enabled the Nazis to consolidate their power in Germany and later seize power in Austria. It begins on February 20 “of that year” (which on the twenty-third page is identified as 1933, for those who hadn’t guessed) with a meeting of twenty-four leading German industrialists, all identified by name and some described in great detail, with the Nazi leaders Goering and Hitler. Goering promises that if the Nazis obtain a majority in the coming elections, these will be the last elections for the next ten years and perhaps even the next hundred years. But the Nazi party needs money for their election campaign. For the assembled industrialists this is not an unusual situation; they are accustomed to making donations to political parties. In this case they are particularly generous. Most of them pledge several hundred thousand marks. Gustav Krupp pledges a million.
What makes this a work of “imaginative prose” is that the scene is described in great detail, including what they must have been thinking, what they could not have not known and even which of them got out of breath from walking up two flights of stairs.
The next-to-last chapter of L’ordre du jour is called Les morts (The dead) and describes a wave of suicides among the Jews of Vienna after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. Journalists were soon forbidden to report on these suicides, and only a veiled reference in a letter by the philosopher Walter Benjamin attests to the rumor that the gas company shut off service to the Jews in Vienna because they were using the gas to commit suicide and then of course failing to pay their gas bills. The author recognizes the possibility that this might have just been a bitter joke, but no matter; “when humor inclines to so much darkness, it tells the truth.”
In front of the house at 67, Boulevard de Montmorency in the Paris quarter of Auteuil there is now a “History of Paris” sign entitled “The loft of the Goncourts”. It explains that the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt moved into this house in 1868. They had a huge art collection, which they put on display in the house, and a large collection of books and manuscripts. After Jules died in 1870, Edmond lived in the house alone. Starting in 1885 he used the loft (le grenier) on the top floor for a Sunday literary salon which was attended by many prominent writers and artists of that era.
The Académie Goncourt does not have an office (its ten members meet once a month at the restaurant Chez Drouant on place Gaillon in the 2nd arrondissement), but the Goncourts’ house now belongs to the City of Paris and is used as La Maison des écrivains et de la littérature (House of writers and literature), an organization which aims to “integrate, represent and defend writers, and through them to promote literature.”
Across the street from the Goncourts’ house was an old railway line, La Petite Ceinture (the Little Belt Line), which went all the way around the outskirts of Paris. It was built in the 1850s and remained in use until the 1930s. There was a station at Porte d’Auteuil. Part of the old Belt Line in Auteuil went through a cut below ground level. Now the old tracks have been replaced by a Nature Path which is also used for jogging.
My photos in this post are from 2015 and 2018. I revised the text in 2018.