(BREAKING: I finally found a copy, and there’s apparently some question as to how crappy Germinie Lacerteux really is…)
I was going to tell you about how crappy the Goncourts’ decadent / naturalist novel Germinie Lacerteux is, with all the bogus medicine and bogus genetics and bogus race science, but Powell’s didn’t have it, or any other Goncourt Brothers novel either. Do you know what that means? It means that nobody is reading the classic crappy novels any more! We really have descended into barbarism, just as the Goncourts said — read the classic crappy novels, people!
Anyway, the backstory is the good part. The Goncourts were wealthy aristocrats. When their devoted family servant Rose Malingre died in 1865, they found that for many years she had been stealing from them, using the money to buy absinthe and cavort with her brutish gigolo. (Rose’s name literally means “sickly rose” — cf. William Blake — and would fit perfectly with the Goncourt’s theory of hereditary medical decay except that the name had been in the family for quite some time).
Theft, absinthe and a brutish gigolo — sounds like a cool, decadent, liberated thing to do, right? But it was their money, and only aristocrats are supposed to do that kind of crap. So they took their pitiful revenge by writing a novel (“Germinie Lacerteux”) in which Rose / Germinie dies a horrible death far worse than her actual death.
Flaubert’s later story “Un coeur simple”, was also about a saintly, devoted servant, but this one did not steal from her masters. It’s Flaubert’s only story portraying an admirable character, and we must assume that it was his little “neener neener” to the Goncourts.
Flaubert and the Goncourts loved the exotic, but to them their own servants, who had lived in their homes since their childhoods, were exotic! Goncourt’s exotic here is lurid, whereas Flaubert’s is saintly and impossible, but clearly none of them had passed that threshold beyond which you end up thinking that the lower orders might be human beings.