Chopin’s Progress

Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin; drawing by David Levine

At first glance the demand for a George Sand “revival” in her country would seem to be about as pressing as one for J. Fenimore Cooper in his. A recent edition of her correspondence has provoked interest, nevertheless, some of her other works have been reissued, and, as I write, the lady herself—in photographs and in a new Pléiade picture book, Album Sand—is the subject of a display in Gallimard’s Boulevard Raspail window. Special attention is also being given to an intimate of Sand’s Nohant circle, Eugène Delacroix, in books (T. J. Clark’s The Absolute Bourgeois, for one) as well as in exhibitions. The Musée Delacroix, in the artist’s former studio on the Place Furstenberg, is currently featuring several of his drawings for Liberty (in Liberty Guiding the People), probably the most famous “topless” female ever to appear in public.

As an observer of a third frequenter of Nohant, Frédéric Chopin, himself well beyond any effect of revivals, vogues, critical reappraisals, Delacroix seems to me a more valuable witness than Sand. His testimony obviously lacks the varieties of perspective provided by Sand’s ten-year liaison, yet he had a rare appreciation of both the man—“C’est le plus vrai artiste que j’ai rencontre“—and of his music, the latter on a level Sand could not reach. But as a “way” to Chopin’s artistic world, the novelist reminds me of a street in Vierzot, near Nohant, called Impasse George Sand.

In truth, Sand differed so profoundly in mind and sensibilities from her paramour—“he was always foreign to my ideas,” she wrote—that one seeks to explain their relationship by such psychological mechanisms as role-reversal. To read her today is to conclude that she should have lived in the Nineteen-seventies. Her independence, activist zeal, and especially her thesis that social equality may be attainable through equality between the sexes (an idea that intrigued another of Sand’s Nohant friends, Matthew Arnold) are more appropriate to this decade than to the century before. On second glance, therefore, the Sand “revival” is not really mysterious. Madame George could be a Charter Sister of NOW.

Shortly before eloping with Chopin, Sand wrote to his friend, Grzymala, whom she looked upon as the composer’s guardian and her judge; and rightly: Grzymala later blamed her for Chopin’s death. A snippet from this letter, in so far as rhetoric of the sort can be snipped, gives a fair example of her style:

… For certain minds the whole question of fidelity is inseparable from possession; this, I believe, is a mistaken idea: one may be more or less unfaithful, but when one has allowed one’s soul to be invaded … the infidelity has already been committed and what follows is less serious…. [Chopin] seemed to fear to soil our love … [but if] this last embrace is not something as holy, as pure and as sacrificial as the rest, no virtue lies in…

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