On Tuesday evening, 14 April 1874, five illustrious writers--novelists and short-story writers, essayists and journal writers, and poets--gathered around a “table bien garnie” in the Café Riche at 16 Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. The men, four Frenchmen--Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, and Edmond de Goncourt--and Ivan Turgenev, an honorary Frenchman, came together to celebrate, if you will, their common failure. You see, for all their success in letters, these men, perhaps the most renowned writers in France at the time, had all suffered the ignominy of hearing their first efforts at writing for the theater booed off the stages of Paris (or, in Turgenev’s case, Moscow and St. Petersburg).
Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is considered one of the finest pieces of 19th-century fiction ever written. His play A Month in the Country (produced in 1872) was a major success and remained in the repertoire of theater troupes throughout his life and after. But his early dramatic forays were of a decidedly romantic nature, often in verse, and were far less well received. Where It Is Thin, There It Breaks was produced at St. Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theater in 1851; Broke (or A Poor Gentleman), also at the Alexandrinsky, was staged in 1852; and The Family Charge (or The Parasite) premièred at the Bolshoi Dramatic Theater, Moscow, in 1862. None were successes--though Daudet quipped of Turgenev’s reported theatrical failures: “Russia’s far away, we can’t go there and see.”
(The truth of Daudet’s observation is, as it happens, part of the explanation for the difficulty in pinning down the details of the first productions of Turgenev’s early plays. While there is documentation for the Paris premières of the stage works of the French writers, 19th-century records from Moscow and St. Petersburg are hard to come by. The other part of the problem is translating and transliterating the titles of his plays: there are just too many permutations. More precise information is certainly available in Russian, but my computer doesn’t handle Cyrillic type very well and my Russian is weaker than my French.)
The Brothers Goncourt, Edmond and his younger brother Jules, were famous for their Journal des Goncourt, a fascinating (and often very personal) view of the Paris society of their age from 1851-96, the blog of its day. They also endowed the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. But in 1865, Edmond’s play Henriette Maréchal was panned at the Comédie-Française (though it was revived more successfully in 1885). It opened at the house of Molière on 5 December and closed after a hostile reception on 16 December.
Daudet wrote L’Arlésienne (The girl from Arles) in 1872, based on one of his sketches in Lettres de Mon Moulin (Letters from My Mill, 1869), and it failed miserably (until Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen, put it to music and it became a minor hit in 1885). It was first performed at the Théâtre du Vaudeville on 1 October 1872 and withdrawn after fifteen performances (21 October). Daudet returned to novel-writing and never tried to write another play.
Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, his first major work, was published in 1867. The writer became renowned as the founder of literary Naturalism (which influenced Ibsen, who transferred the writing style to the stage). Zola, wanting “to kick life into the theatre's moribund procedures,” adapted his own novel for the stage; the play opened at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on 11 July 1873--and promptly closed after nine performances. Thérèse Raquin was not revived for ten years after its initial failure, but it continued to be played afterwards and has been recognised as an early example of stage Naturalism, a precursor to Strindberg (who acknowledged its influence) and Ibsen (who didn’t).
Flaubert’s attempt at playwriting, Le Candidat (The Candidate), a dramatic comedy, appeared on the stage at the Théâtre du Vaudeville on 11 March 1874 and, after critics complained of the wooden dialogue and flat, caricaturish characters and audiences stayed away in droves, it closed on 14 March after only four performances. It was the only play Flaubert, author of the classic Madame Bovary (1857), ever wrote on his own and the only one staged during his lifetime.
It was apparently Flaubert’s notion, after Le Candidat was “booed off the stage,” that the would-be dramatists meet at what he dubbed “Dinners for Hissed Authors” and the first colleague he invited to join him was Zola. The gang eventually grew to five and Turgenev came up with the sobriquet le Groupe des Auteurs Sifflés. The Group of Five (or simply “The Five”), as they were also called, sometimes met at Daudet’s home at the Hôtel de Lamoignon at 24 Rue de Pavée and occasionally at cafés, but they usually met on a Sunday at Flaubert’s house at 240 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. There was always plenty of good food and drink, and the hissed authors were undoubtedly well lubricated with wine and brandy. (Hey, they were French, weren’t they? Mais, bien sûr!) Turgenev was usually the first to arrive, and Flaubert would “embrace [him] like a brother.” The long, raucous evenings often lasted until 2 or 3 a.m.
It has been in the back of my mind that writing the scene that depicts these extraordinary gatherings would be a fruitful task. It has to be innately theatrical given the personalities involved and the milieu--a well-oiled, wide-ranging, unrestrained, and literate conversation. Perhaps not a lot of action, but the wit should flow almost endlessly! I even have a companion piece for the scene: In the summers of the early 1940s, Tennessee Williams vacationed in Provincetown, Mass., on Cape Cod. He and his drinking buddies used to gather in the evening at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a wooden pier that jutted out into P’town Harbor behind a bar above which Williams rented a room. This group was composed of a really varied crew, including painter Jackson Pollock; Lee Krasner, a student of Hans Hofmann's P'town art school and later Pollock’s wife; Kip Kiernan, Williams’s dancer-lover who modeled at Hofmann’s school; Joe Hazan, another dancer friend who modeled for Hofmann’s students; Valeska Gert, a German immigrée nightclub owner who performed satirical political caricatures; poet Robert Duncan; Fritz Bultman, the New Orleans-born painter and another student of Hofmann; Bultman’s wife Jeanne; music and dance critic Edwin Denby; and maybe even Hofmann as the elder statesman. (Williams at this time also became friends with Tallulah Bankhead while she was appearing at the Cape Playhouse up the Cape in Dennis, so she could make an appearance, just for the theatricality of it.) Unhappily, I’m no playwright, so I haven’t really attempted to write the scenes--just imagine them. (Anybody got a holodeck I can use?)
The meetings of les Sifflés, full of wit and satire by all accounts, continued monthly until Flaubert’s death of a brain hemorrhage on 8 May 1880. The men were all more than mere colleagues and fellow writers--they were friends; Flaubert and Turgenev were even best friends and Zola was considered Turgenev’s spiritual son. Their stage failures only served as an excuse to tease one another and dream and theorize with great enthusiasm. “From three o’clock to six o’clock we went at a gallop through different subjects,” wrote Zola. De Goncourt, for example, once scolded Turgenev that he was “saturated with femininity,” to which the Russian writer replied, “With me neither books nor anything in the world could take the place of a woman. How can I make that plain to you?” (Turgenev, by the way, never married, but one of the reasons for his long stays in Paris is often said to have been his lifelong love of a married woman, the singer and actress Pauline Viardot whom he first met when he heard her sing in Russia in 1843. He followed her to Paris two years later.) On another occasion, de Goncourt records, “We began with a long conversation on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhea.” But much of the conversation was literary. According to Henry James, a friend and occasional visitor to the salon, the Dîners des Auteurs Sifflés went like this:
What was discussed in that little smoke-clouded room was chiefly questions of taste, questions of art and form; and the speakers, for the most part, were in æsthetic matters radicals of the deepest dye. . . . This state of mind was never more apparent than one afternoon when ces messieurs delivered themselves on the subject of an incident which had just befallen one of them. "L'Assommoir" of Emile Zola had been discontinued in the journal through which it was running as a serial, in consequence of repeated protests from the subscribers. The subscriber, as a type of human imbecility, received a wonderful dressing, and the Philistine in general was roughly handled. There were gulfs of difference between Turgenev and Zola, but Turgenev, who, as I say, understood everything, understood Zola too, and rendered perfect justice to the high solidity of much of his work.
Les Sifflés were a somewhat motley bunch, however, despite their connection as men of letters (and failed playwrights). For all Turgenev’s seriousness and intellectuality, Daudet, for instance, was something of a roué and reprobate. The youngest of the Five, born a month after Zola, Daudet lost his virginity at 12--and he is rumored to have slept with all his friends' mistresses. He died of apoplexy brought on by advanced syphilis at the age of 57.
Ivan Turgenev (1818-83) was something of the éminence grise among les Sifflés, it seems. Even as a foreigner, as one of les Cinq he was accepted almost as a French writer. An imposing figure--he was 6’ 3” with an athletic build--he was known among his comrades as “that Russian giant.” But he was soft-spoken, with an almost feminine voice. He was handsome and charming, but timid, restrained, and gentle. Despite the prominence of the others, however, even Zola seemed to feel Turgenev’s leadership. He cherished harmony and restraint, avoiding extremes of manner in both his life and his art, and remained a balanced, cultured gentleman all his life. He held himself aloof of political and philosophical creeds, and espoused a kind of agreeable atheism. Guy de Maupassant, another visitor, recounts:
Tourgenev [sic] used to bury himself in an arm chair and talk slowly in a gentle voice, rather weak and hesitating, yet giving to the things he said an extraordinary charm and interest. Flaubert would listen to him with religious reverence, fixing his wide blue eyes upon his friend's fine face and answering in his sonorous voice, which came like a clarion blast from under that veteran Gaul's moustache of his. Their conversations rarely touched upon the current affairs of life, seldom wandered away from literary history.
Turgenev was born into a wealthy, aristocratic, landed family and was sent abroad for his education; after studies at both the Universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, he went to the University of Berlin where he read philosophy. (Most of the other Sifflés either left school at young ages or finished only a secondary education. Only Flaubert, the son of a successful surgeon, had a comfortable youth and was sent to Paris to study law--a profession for which he determined he was unsuited.) Fluent in French, German, Spanish, English, and Italian, the Russian would bring along books by Goethe, Pushkin, or Swinburne and translate poetry from them. He regarded Flaubert as the most extraordinary writer in France and Madame Bovary the most forceful piece of writing of the century. Like Zola, Turgenev wished to make his mark on the world as a dramatist rather than as a novelist (though his theatrical reputation is founded on a single play, A Month in the Country). The oldest among the Group of Five, Turgenev served as a sort of unofficial ambassador to the Russian émigré community in Paris, helping out young writers, often at his own expense. Like all the Five, he had a wide and varied circle of acquaintances, even in Paris: in 1879, he was, for example, invited by the actual Russian ambassador, Prince Nikolai Orlov, to lunch at the embassy with Czarevich Alexander--later Czar Alexander III (1881-94), father of the last Czar. (On the other hand, he feuded with two of the other most illustrious writers of Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, until shortly before his death.) A lifelong hypochondriac, he was diagnosed with an actual fatal illness, spinal cancer, as early as 1876. He died of the disease just shy of the age of 65.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-80), it seems, liked to read aloud at the gatherings. He especially liked to read examples of bad writing and jeer at the author’s poor sense of rhythm. He’d point out needless repetition, clichés, and infelicitously resonant passages. The author of Madam Bovary had the build of a guardsman but his health had been precarious since childhood. He was neurotic and worked in hermit-like seclusion, devoted to his writing. Like Daudet and Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert was infected with syphilis. But it was bouts of epilepsy that endangered his life, and he was constrained from strenuous activity and, especially, emotional excitement. For this reason, he felt he must become an observer of life, not a participant, and he became a tireless worker who imposed upon himself high standards for his art. He worked in solitude, sometimes taking a week to complete one page. He was famous for persistently searching for le mot juste--the appropriate word. Flaubert was also shy, though extremely sensitive and arrogant. He could pass from silence to indignant rage, emitting a flow of language. Flaubert detested anything bourgeois, petty-respectable, platitudinous, or self-satisfied. He can be said to have made cynicism into an art form.
Edmond de Goncourt (1822-96) was the elder half of les Frères Goncourt, who collaborated so closely that even after the death of Jules (1830-70), they were almost never mentioned separately. Neither brother ever married, and they prided themselves on sharing a Rubenesque blonde mistress. Polished, aristocratic, neurasthenic, Edmond was of an artistic and nervous temperament and, with his brother, cultivated a sense of persecution. Their first novel, En 1851, was published the day after the coup of 2 December 1851 (which brought Louis Napoleon to power as Emperor Napoleon III and in which Daudet’s patron, the duc de Morny, had been instrumental) and quickly sank into oblivion; the next year, the brothers were arrested and tried (but acquitted) on the charge of outrage à la morale publique for quoting a mildly erotic 16th-century verse in an article; and when Henriette Maréchal opened in 1865, it generated anti-government demonstrations when students from the Latin Quarter lined up on opening night to jeer the play because the de Goncourts were considered anti-Republicans and intimates of Princess Mathilde, a niece of Napoleon I. The student-protesters believed that only the influence of the princess had made it possible to stage the play. Gradually the furor over the play died down, but then an attack was mounted from the opposite camp. Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III and an enemy of Princess Mathilde, succeeded in having the play banned on 17 December 1865. Between 1851 and 1870, the brothers published their famous Journal together, a chronicle of the Belle Époque in Paris as they witnessed it at first hand. As a last tandem effort in the Goncourt Journal, Edmond recorded the details of Jules’s excruciating death from syphilis. Edmond continued the Journal on his own until his own death, when he endowed the Académie Goncourt, a group of ten writers of great esteem in France who each December award the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious French literary award, given for "the best imaginary prose work of the year" in the French language. Winners have included Georges Duhamel, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, Roman Gary, Michel Tournier, and Marguerite Duras.
Émile Zola (1840-1902) became friends with future Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne when they were youths, but the friendship foundered over Zola’s portrait of Cézanne in L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886). He worked as a political journalist and was very opinionated, a harsh and outspoken critic of the government (until the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870). Like Victor Hugo, to whom the younger writer was a sort of political apprentice and follower, Zola did not hide his dislike of Napoleon III, who had used his presidency of the Second Republic as a springboard to become emperor in 1852. At the same time, though an intense moralist, he was staunchly anti-Catholic. He was, nevertheless, a best-selling author and a French literary star in his day and appeared among the literary elite of Paris as a statesman and bon-vivant. Zola was intrigued by contemporary scientific theories, especially Darwin’s evolutionary system but also the writings of Prosper Lucas on heredity and the ideas of critic and historian Hippolyte Taine. He was struck with the relevance of Darwin's theories to everyday life, particularly the life of the poor, who had to struggle constantly to survive. (Zola’s early existence in Paris was direct experience of this reality.) The writer, considered the founder of the Naturalist literary movement (though he began writing as a Romanticist), believed that the tenets and methods of science were applicable to other disciplines, including art and writing, and that artists should use their art and other means to construct "the best society." Toward this end, Zola sought to reveal social injustices and societal failings in his novels and plays. Zola championed a "slice of life" drama presented with a minimum of artifice, applying what became known as “scientific naturalism.” He believed that the quickest and surest way for a budding author to achieve recognition was through a successful play so, like Turgenev, it was in the theater that Zola wanted to make his mark. In “L'Argent dans la littérature” (“The Influence of Money in Literature,” 1880; part of The Experimental Novel), Zola writes that financial rewards in theater are greater than a novelist could ever hope to achieve and such "bread-and-butter" considerations were as important in the author’s decision to write for the stage as was his genuine passion for the theater. At the end of his life, Zola’s most notable act was his advocacy for Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer accused in 1894 of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, the only prisoner there. In behalf of Dreyfus, whose actual guilt was dubious from the start, Zola wrote “J’Accuse” (1898) and campaigned for Dreyfus’s exhonoration (which came in 1906, four years after Zola’s death). During the process of Zola’s advocacy, however, he became a target of the government himself and was sentenced to imprisonment for libel in 1898. He escaped to England, and only returned in 1899, after Dreyfus had been cleared and the charges against Zola had been dismissed. The great author died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty chimney (though there always remained suspicions that he had been murdered by political enemies). Dreyfus attended the funeral, but had to come in disguise.
Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) was short of stature: Dickens, to whom Daudet was often compared, called him "my little brother in France" and de Goncourt called him "mon petit Daudet." Born in Nîmes, he grew up in Provence (hence, L’Arlésienne--The girl from Arles), the same region that enraptured Vincent van Gogh. Daudet came to Paris in 1857, at the age of 17--and almost immediately contracted syphilis from a lectrice de la cour, a woman employed to read aloud at court. (At least, he bragged, his disease came from “a classier, indeed more literary, source” than that of his friends.) In 1861, Daudet became a private secretary to the duc de Morny, the Minister of the Interior and illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, then Emperor of the Second French Empire; he remained in that position until de Morny’s death in 1865. (De Morny had helped organize the coup d’état of 2 December 1851 which brought Louis Napoleon to the throne, a circumstance which Daudet’s future colleague, Zola, abhorred.) Daudet collaborated in writing a number of one-act plays (La Dernière idole, 1862; Les Absents, 1864; L'Œillet blanc, 1865), all helped toward the stage by de Morny's influence. Despite his reputation as a reprobate, however, Daudet was kind, generous, and sociable. He was a passionate observer of his surroundings and an unstoppable talker. He was an intimate friend of Edmond de Goncourt, who seemed to have adopted Daudet as a surrogate sibling after his younger brother, Jules, died of syphilis. (Ironically, de Goncourt would have to witness his dear friend suffer the same affliction that took his brother.) De Goncourt died in Daudet’s house, 18 months before Daudet himself died, collapsing at the dinner table and expiring almost instantly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Today, Daudet’s writings are mostly overlooked, though he kept a remarkable account of the progress of his illness which wasn’t published in France (as La Doulou, the Provençal word for la douleur, or ‘pain’) until 1930 and wasn’t translated into English (as In the Land of Pain) until 2002.
That’s the cast of characters. The setting would be Flaubert’s house, of course, around the dinner table and in the salon after the meal as the men smoked and drank and jousted. (All the participants being writers--most of them chroniclers and reporters of one sort or another as well--many of them recorded their accounts of this time one way or another; many also left letters that have been published.) The larger setting, however, the world of Paris and Europe around the Five, was a busy and tumultuous place during this period, giving the writers plenty of material to talk about. In the 30 years between 1850 and the end of les Dîners des Sifflés in 1880, much of their world shifted drastically. The Second Republic, born in 1848, came to an end in 1852 when Louis Napoleon took the title Emperor Napoleon III and launched the Second Empire. Napoleon III put a puppet emperor, Maximilian I, on the throne of Mexico in 1864, only to see him overthrown and executed in 1867. Shortly before the Dîners began, France was engaged in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and Paris was occupied by German troops through 1872. This ended the Second Empire and the Third Republic, which would last until World War II, was declared in 1870. A year later, the Paris Commune, a coalition of the working class, took over the government of France for three months.
Turgenev’s native Russia went to war against France, England, and the Ottoman Turks in the Crimea from 1853 to 1856 and then saw the serfs freed, an act for which Turgenev had long campaigned, in 1861. Next door, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Dual Monarchy, was formed in 1867 and elsewhere on the continent, Italy was unified as a kingdom in 1861 and Germany as an empire in 1871. From 1877 to 1878, Russia was again at war with the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War. On the other side of the world, Japan, the Floating Kingdom, was somewhat forcibly opened to the West in 1852. Karl Marx published Das Kapital in 1867, a small event that would soon help change the world for decades.
Politics wasn’t the only field in which turmoil was enlivening the world in those few years. Science and medicine were making huge advances with discoveries by the likes of Pasteur, Lister, and Mendel. Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, a profound influence especially on Zola’s thinking, in 1859. Anthropologists and archeologists were making discoveries about the human past almost annually it seemed. And the world les Cinq were learning more and more about was getting smaller at the same time: steamships were replacing sail and increasing in size and speed; railroads were opening all over Europe and the rest of the world; the Suez Canal opened in 1869 shortening the time to travel between West and East by weeks. And communication was getting better and faster: the telephone was invented in 1876 and the telegraph was tying the world together ever more tightly: the Transaltlantic Cable was completed in 1866. Newspapers were proliferating: The New York Times was founded in 1851, Figaro became a daily in Paris in 1854, the Daily Telegraph began in London in 1855, the Atlantic Monthly was launched in 1857, The Nation in 1865, the same year as both the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. At the same time, photography was becoming so simple that even amateurs were able to take pictures of all the new worlds they were visiting and show others exactly what things were like in exotic, far-way places.
The effect these technological developments had on the worlds of art and literature was shattering. The curiosity over what other parts of the earth looked like and how the people there really behaved and lived began to shift the perspective of writers from Romanticism, the world of dreams and flights of imagination, to Realism and Naturalism, the world of facts and observation. The Five were at the forefront of the shift, forming the conventions for the new writing and spreading the principals abroad and into the field of dramatic writing. Witnesses to the changes in politics, technology, and industry, les Cinq were the movers of the change in written art.
Around them, other changes were happening, too. In painting and sculpture, Realism was giving way to Impressionism--almost an opposite reaction to that of the writer’s art. My theory has always been that the spread of photography was greatly to blame for this. As long as it was decreasingly the responsibility of the artist to capture life as it is, and increasingly the job of the photographer, then the artist was driven to do what photographs didn’t do: portray the world as only an artist could see it. As objectivity became the domain of the photographer (and eventually the cinematographer), the artist turned to subjectivity: impressions. (There were other influences, too, of course. The focus on the middle and working classes, for example, and on the workaday world, the world of the street, the field, the café, were often the subjects of the Impressionists--but seldom of the Realists or the Romanticists.) In 1863, the official, established galleries in Paris mounted an exhibit of the approved artists, rejecting work by new aritists. Napoleon III decreed that these artists, who included Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Camille Pissarro, and Zola’s school chum Paul Cézanne, should show their work in a gallery adjacent to the main Salon. It became known as the Salon des Refusés, the “exhibition of rejects.” (Zola wrote a fictionalized account of this event, L’Œuvre, the work that split him and Cézanne.) Eleven years later, the year les Sifflés began their gatherings, the Exhibition of the Impressionists--so titled by an art critic who took the name from one of Claude Monet’s paintings, Impression: soleil levant--was the sensation of Paris. The Impressionists had arrived and successfully stormed the gates of Paris.
This was the world in which les Cinq met each month, the world they wrote about, talked about, and argued about.