“Oh, provinces, I swear I’ll never again look for bibelots in your shops!” So writes Edmond Goncourt at the end of a journal entry of March, 1880. He has gone, with Daudet, Zola, and Charpentier, to spend the night with Flaubert in the country. On the way back to Paris they arrive in Rouen at two in the afternoon and decide to spend the rest of the day there and return to Paris in the evening. The idea is to look through the antique shops and have a good meal. But the meal is terrible and, because it is the Monday after Easter, the shops all turn out to be closed, save one, where Goncourt manages to buy a pair of andirons for three thousand francs—not, apparently, a bargain.

What Goncourt describes here is the frustration of the collector: botched connections, days begun in hope and finished in waste and disappointment. Coming into the town, Goncourt feels the territory to be...


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