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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 He, the unpublished writer and debutant amorist, is always telling her, the well-known poet and skilled boudoir operator, just exactly what is what in both art and love: “O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 is corroboration of this in a letter from the seventeen-year-old Flaubert to his school-friend Ernest Chevalier. But most of his references to her before they meet are disparaging. He calls her “that latter-day Dorothée” (after the hormonally confused Mme. d’Esterval in Sade’s La Nouvelle Justine); he reports, when her Histoire de ma vie comes out, “Every day I read G. Sand and regularly work myself up into a state of indignation for a good quarter of an hour”; while in 1852, in one of his least gallant similes, he compares her work to leukorrhea, or vaginal discharge: “everything oozes, and ideas trickle between words as though between slack thighs.” Her books put him off; so did her public image as ladite mère St. Sand. The two of them were set far apart by age, sex, geography, temperament, politics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

But Flaubert could be as warm and undogmatic in person as he was stern in matters of art. In 1856, for instance, he began his long, touching, and unexpected correspondence with Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, the elderly, devout fan who was also a thorough-going Sandian (“G. Sand est ma foi et ma loi, je me retrouve tout entière dans les sentiments et les pensées exprimées dans ses ouvrages…on dirait que c’est une soeur“). Shortly afterward he met Sand herself and was enchanted. This is not surprising. She was by the 1860s a sort of literary monument whom many came to mock but stayed to admire. Her chief characteristics are held to be placidity, dignity, “elephantine gravity” (the Goncourts), stolidity, calm, serenity, platitudinousness, kindness, sweetness, and charm. Male littérateurs were reluctantly, even ruefully, won round by her goodness, her honesty, her efficiency. Théophile Gautier went to Nohant, reported it “as amusing as a Moravian monastery,” complained of the personnel that “all their fun comes from farting” (not especially monastic, you’d have thought), but ended by admitting that “All in all, she does you very well.” Maxime Du Camp writes that she “had the serenity of those ruminants whose peaceful eyes seem to reflect immensity”; but in rather a confused account he is clearly impressed by her honorable nature and awed by her industry.

The Goncourts are predictably cattier, but though satirical and prurient, they cannot deny her charm. They record her at her first Magny dinner glancing timidly round the table and murmuring to Flaubert “You’re the only one here with whom I feel at ease”; on another occasion they mock her clothes as being chosen to seduce him; later, they report an overhearing in the Princesse Mathilde’s conservatory: suddenly, amid the habitual vous of Flaubert and Sand, a tu escapes Sand’s lips, and the princess looks meaningfully across at the Goncourts. Was this a theatrical tu or a lover’s tu? In fact, neither: throughout their correspondence Sand regularly addressed Flaubert as tu, just as, out of respect for her age and sex, he always addressed her as vous. He also called her chère maître, the feminizing of the adjective marking a double homage to his friend.

Both were provincials still drawn to Paris; both were established as major writers; both lived in large, comfortable, well-run households making visits agreeable. (Nohant is the better documented and mythologized: Henry James was half awed and half disgusted after having visited “the very scene where they pigged so thrillingly together. What a crew, what moeurs, what habits…and what an altogether mighty and marvelous George!—not diminished by all the greasiness and smelliness in which she made herself (and so many other persons!) at home.” Croisset, by contrast, had fewer visitors. Sand found the bearish retreat “comfortable, pretty and well arranged. Good servants; clean; plenty of water; every need thoughtfully provided for.”) Beyond this, their very difference drew them together, and perhaps made them less rivalrous. As Sand wrote to him: “I don’t think there can be two workers in the world more different from one another than we are…. We complete ourselves by identifying every so often with what is not ourselves.”

Mutual praise helps friendship; so does sucking-up. Flaubert’s behind-the-hand disparagement of Sand did not stop him sending her a dedicated copy of Madame Bovary (“hommage d’un inconnu“) when the novel appeared in volume form in 1857. She wrote admiringly and defendingly of it in the Courrier de Paris; and she was later to praise Salammbô in La Presse (while privately thinking it “really of interest only to artists and scholars”). In return, Flaubert seems to have tried hard and often succeeded in liking Sand’s work. In 1872 Flaubert called on le père Hugo and found him “charming! I say it again: charming” because “I love to love what I admire.” A variant of this is also true: we love to admire what we love. And so Flaubert, won over by Sand’s goodness, sympathy, and intelligence, seeks and finds virtue in her writing for the first time since he was seventeen. While remaining intractable in matters of literary principle, he is generous in acknowledging the vivid scene, the plausible character, the flow of plot. He continues occasionally to make an intemperate aside about her work to other correspondents; but this is unexceptional literary behavior.

The pair of them also cemented their friendship with brief bouts of Old Fartery. The funniest of these moments comes when they start complaining about the sexual morality of the rising generation. In 1866 Sand mentions a young engineer friend of hers, handsome, frequently ogled by women, and yet with a terrible behavioral problem: “He’s in love, and engaged, and has to wait and work for four years to be in a position to marry, and he’s made a vow,” she records pityingly. “Morality apart, I don’t think young people nowadays have the energy to cope with science and debauchery, tarts and fiancées, all at the same time.” Flaubert harrumphs back that the engineer’s vow is, in his opinion, “Pure foolishness…. ‘In my day’ we made no such vows. We made love! And boldly!… And if we kept away from ‘the Ladies,’ as I did, absolutely, for two years (from 21 to 23), it was out of pride, as a challenge to oneself, a show of strength…. We were Romantics, in short—Red Romantics, utterly ridiculous, but in full efflorescence.”

Now they are largely retired from the emotional field, and this too is a bond. Sand’s well-documented amours lie in the past (though as she Piafly remarked to Maxime Du Camp over dinner in 1868, “Je ne regrette rien“). She was established as an active rural grandmother, still swimming in the icy Indre in her mid-sixties, devoted to family and duty, passionate about the education of her granddaughter Aurore. Flaubert was increasingly the book-bound bachelor, letting few into his study and even fewer into his heart. Sand at one point suggests to him that seclusion is “your form of ecstasy”—which he denies with more indignation than conviction.

In addition, they shared an element of gender attenuation, or perhaps gender elision. Sand quotes anatomists to the effect that “there is only one sex,” and writes in one of her earliest letters to Flaubert: “Now that I’m no longer a woman I’d become a man if God were just.” He addresses her as “You who are of the Third Sex,” and after her death recalled “how much femininity there was in that great man.” (The Goncourts, who believed genius to be exclusively a male possession, put it with a gloating coarseness: an autopsy on any famous female writer, Mme. Sand or Mme. de Staël, would reveal a clitoris growing enviously toward the size of a penis.) For his part, Flaubert described himself as a “male hysteric” in 1867, and is delighted seven years later when a certain Dr. Hardy raises the stakes by pronouncing him “a hysterical old woman,” an observation he judges “profound.”

She post-menopausal, he wombridden; both perhaps in the intermediate, sex-free state which is supposedly a writer’s ideal. It may have some light significance that both Sand and Flaubert indulged in cross-dressing. In her younger Paris days Sand often wore men’s clothes. (There was a restaurateur who told the Goncourts, “It’s a funny thing, but when she’s dressed as a man I call her Madame, and when she’s dressed as a woman I call her Monsieur.”) As for Flaubert, his only two recorded instances of transvestism both took place at Nohant. On December 27, 1869, he “dressed up as a woman and danced the chachucha with Plauchut. It was grotesque; everyone went wild.” (This is not the cha-cha-cha but the cachucha, a Spanish dance.) And on Easter Day 1873 Sand reports: “Flaubert put on a skirt and had a shot at the fandango. He was very funny, but gasping for breath after about five minutes.”

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