Unlikely Friendship

Flaubert-Sand: The Correspondence

translated by Francis Steegmuller, translated by Barbara Bray
Knopf, 428 pp., $35.00

This great correspondence is built upon equality and difference. Flaubert’s exchanges with Turgenev are full of equality—not to say crusty backpatting—but largely empty of difference: “We are a pair of old moles,” writes Turgenev, “burrowing in the same direction.” Flaubert’s exchanges with Louise Colet, vivid with difference, lack any useful equality: not just because most of her letters were destroyed, but because of his flamboyant and bullying assertiveness. He, the unpublished writer and debutant amorist, is always telling her, the well-known poet and skilled boudoir operator, just exactly what is what in both art and love: “O enfant, enfant, que tu es jeune encore!” is a characteristic apostrophe to a woman eleven years his senior. Only with George Sand does Flaubert manage to attain both equality and difference.

Your letters fall upon me,” Sand writes with lyrical gratitude, “like a good shower of rain, making all the seeds in the ground start to sprout.” But it is not the rain that decides the nature of the crop: she warns him not to expect her roots “to produce tulips when all they can give you is potatoes.” So this is not a correspondence that changes its participants’ minds. By the time it starts, with Sand fifty-eight and Flaubert an antiquated forty-one, they are too wise, or set, in their ways for that. Early on, she urges him to criticize one of her novels: “People ought to do this service for one another, as Balzac and I used to do. It doesn’t mean you change one another—on the contrary, it usually makes one cling more firmly to one’s point of view.” Their thirteen-year correspondence exhibits much passionate and at times desperate clinging.

On the other hand, this is a correspondence whose two sides make up a whole argument, the argument every writer and reader has with him- or herself, the argument art never ceases to have with itself: Beauty v. Utility, Truthfulness v. Moral Uplift, Happy Few v. Mass Audience, Contemporary Relevance v. Future Durability, Primacy of Form v. Urgency of Message, Style v. Content, The Artist as Controlling Creator v. The Artist as Played-Upon Instrument, and so on.

Flaubert, lordly and inflexible, always takes the high aesthetic line: the making of art necessarily entails the partial renunciation of life; the artist can only know humanity, but cannot change it; truth is a sufficient good in itself. Sand’s position, to which she is just as committed, is pragmatic and involving: life, and especially love, are more important than art; artists cannot negotiate a detachment from the rest of the human species, since art springs precisely from their intimate, messy commingling with it; art must be useful and moral. If their general stances are often foreseeable, the outcome of their individual arguments is less so; at times even the committed Flaubertian will acknowledge some of Mme. Sand’s shrewder blows.

Flaubert told Sand that her work “often set me dreaming in my youth”; and there …

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