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Alain Claude Sulzer’s novel “Double Life”: One heart, one soul, one mind

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Jules gets his best ideas during morning exercises by the open window of his attic. Shirtless, he lifts dumbbells and does squats. Forward – back – up – down. The greater the physical exertion, the more the floodgates of inspiration open.

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“The spirit became as light as a Montgolfier and aimless as a tumbling bumblebee.” Jules loves excess, he believes excess is the only correct standard. That’s why he literally trains until he drops. His brother Edmond, alarmed by the thud of the dumbbells, bursts into the room to find him slumped on the floor.

The scene in which the morning exercise ends in collapse can be found near the beginning of Alain Claude Sulzer’s novel “Double Life”. It already shows the close, almost symbiotic relationship between the two protagonists. The writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt live together like an old married couple, except that they never argue with each other.

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“It was as if they had one heart, one soul, one mind,” it once said, “even the moment of sexual desire often overwhelmed both at the same time, as if they were a single being.” However, Edmond believes he has to protect his brother, who is eight years his junior. Because Jules suffers from syphilis, and no weight training can hide the fact that his decline has already begun.

The book begins in 1869, shortly after the two die-hard bachelors bought a house in the Paris suburb of Auteuil. In the city center they had lived next to the factory of the instrument maker Adolphe Sax, which meant that they were sometimes woken up by a brass band on Sundays.

But the hope of finally finding peace is disappointed because the noise has followed them in the form of screaming neighbor children and barking mutts. Writers are noise-sensitive creatures, and Sulzer is in great form when he turns the disturbance emanating from Sax’s workshops into a suada against music-making itself, driving listeners into a hypnotic intoxication that “makes thinking impossible.”

Rambles through the salons

The Goncourts are convinced that “their name would survive them”. This happened, but not in the way the brothers had hoped, because the world remembers them less for their naturalistic novels than for the diaries they kept together from 1851, in which they describe their forays through the Parisian salons, encounters with friends like Flaubert, Zola or Victor Hugo and don’t skimp on malice and sarcasm.

Although Alain Claude Sulzer occasionally uses signal words with contemporary color such as “contortionist”, “Montgolfiere” or “physical exercises”, he fortunately avoids imitating the style of his heroes with old-fashioned language, a crux of many historical novels.

Talent for scarcity

The Swiss writer tells laconic stories, sometimes he becomes poetic and lets swifts “arrow” through the air. Again and again he proves his knack for aphoristic conciseness: “The artist’s signature was nonchalance and laissez-faire.”

Sulzer crawls into the Goncourts’ “work of thought,” writing so closely along their notes that it’s unclear where the citation ends and the invention begins. The description of a dinner party at Princess Mathilde Bonaparte’s turns into a satirical showpiece.

scandal at the princess

They talk about theatrical experiences, the Goncourts feel offended because their new book is not mentioned by a syllable, and when Jules calls out “It stinks of shit” during the main course, there is almost an uproar. One of the princess’s lap dogs left a pile under the table, but she insists “a little breeze” escaped her.

Thanks to their parents’ inheritance, the brothers can afford to live as artists, but suffer from being mere outsiders in the highest circles of the Second Empire, i.e. lapdogs, so to speak. But the “double life” of the novel’s title not only refers to their close relationship, almost reminiscent of Siamese twins, but also to another character who only gets attention late. Although diarists are renowned for the accuracy of their gaze, they miss the drama that is unfolding right under their noses.

In flashbacks, Sulzer puts together the biography of Rosalie Malingre, who in 1837 at the age of 17 is employed as a chambermaid in the Goncourt household and rises to the rank of housekeeper. Rose is “as unobtrusive as befits her class” and, according to a colleague, has “experience at scurrying”. She can barely read and is not interested in her employers’ late-night doodling, but ensures clean laundry, tidy rooms and regular meals from 6 am to midnight. “Unmovable like a piece of furniture” she is one of the brothers.

The Goncourts react with ignorance to this form of love that the maid shows them. “Does she have passions?” Edmond asks once. “Oh sure,” replies Jules. “Only we don’t know her.” Little do they know that Rose was >raped by a waiter when she was young and suffered a stillbirth.

As a “used girl” she is out of the question for marriage, falls in love with a Hallodri-like glove maker, steals money for him, has a daughter from him who never grows old. The Goncourts only find out all this after Rose has died of tuberculosis and their creditors get in touch with them. Instead of condemning her, they memorialize the maid with her novel “Germinie Lacerteux”.

Soon after, Jules’ mental decline begins. He can no longer pronounce individual letters, the words fall apart. No one, writes Sulzer, was ever closer to him than Rose. Apart from his brother, of course. Edmond continued the diary they had started together after Jules’ death in 1870 for 25 years alone. When we talk about them today, for example at the award ceremony for the Prix Goncourt, we always imagine the brothers together. As a dual entity.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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