'FLAUBERT put on a skirt and had a shot at the fandango,' George Sand writes in her diary after one of her friend's rare visits to her country home. She is almost 70 at the time, and Flaubert is a misanthropic old bachelor in his fifties, yet as this splendid book of their intense correspondence over more than a decade shows, they were constantly capable of entertaining, sustaining, and surprising each other.
Beyond the fandango, one of the things these letters to his 'chere maitre' reveal is how fascinated Flaubert was with what he saw of the female inside himself. We know that he once exclaimed: 'Emma Bovary, c'est moi', and to Sand he writes of himself at times as a 'hysterical woman'; at others he suggests 'I belong to both sexes, perhaps'. In this sense Sand, with her adopted male name and inexhaustible energy, provides the perfect foil for what Flaubert perceives as his own female passivity. He can even permit himself a lugubrious 'I curse women: they are the cause of all our woes', without intending any disrespect to Mme Sand, since he has long since adopted her as an honorary male.
At times Flaubert's letters make the relation between the two seem like a correspondence course in therapy. He is unremittingly gloomy about the prospects for humankind, and attributes this despondency to his imagined American Indian ancestry: 'the blood of my forefathers, the Natchez or the Hurons, seethes through my veins'. It colours his views on everything from politics to literature to family life.
The 400 or more letters cover the period 1866-1876, which were cruel years for France. The sham glories of the Second Empire, followed by a crushing defeat at the hands of the Prussians, bloody civil war with the Paris commune, then a prolonged struggle to find a viable political system, all leave Flaubert fuming like a Gallic Philip Larkin: 'Mankind is displaying nothing new. Its irremediable wretchedness has embittered me ever since my youth. So I am not disillusioned now. I believe that the crowd, the mass, the herd, will always be detestable.'
Sand replies with unshakable conviction that mankind must be aiming towards higher things. She dismisses his pessimism with constant uplifting charm. In one 1875 letter, for example, she recommends he 'write something more down to earth that suits everybody', and actually suggests that he 'learn about life from the molluscs . . . natural history is an inexhaustible source of pleasant occupation even for those who seek only amusement, and if you got interested, it would be the saving of you'.
Greatly no doubt to Flaubert's satisfaction, Sand appears throughout to accept that he is struggling to write masterpieces aimed at withstanding the test of time, while she merely dashes off her 'yearly novel'. She sees novel writing almost entirely in terms of human interest. Flaubert sees it as the opposite, a show of style that, at least in theory, reveals nothing of the author: 'I feel an unconquerable aversion to putting anything of my heart on paper. I even think that a novelist hasn't the right to express his opinion on anything whatsoever. Has God ever expressed his opinion?'
In the spring of 1876, George Sand died quite suddenly. Flaubert was genuinely moved at her funeral, and in homage wrote Un Coeur Simple. In its acknowledgment of emotion this work comes closest to what Sand had always urged him to write; and could it be that his loyal correspondent makes a final appearance in the guise of that famous gaudy parrot?
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