When “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a useless remark….or, George Sand and me….

Well, I’ve waited long enough to spring my no doubt invalid responses to George Sand on the world, and after exchanging a few remarks with my friend DJ in the comments to my last post have decided to cut the crap and get down to it.  I don’t care for George Sand.  Now, this would not be such a disappointment had I not already slotted her in as one of the luminary lights in my pantheon of important female forebears (also spelled forbears, I’ve been told), and did I not have personal reasons for being predisposed in her favor sight unseen, and wanting to like her.  Many years ago, when I was younger and a lot more foolish (we’ll hope) than I am now, a pompous, overbearing, full-of-himself slightly older literary twit with whom I happened to be under the illusion that I was in love dismissed George Sand with a facetious condemnatory remark about her socialism and her feminism and said she was a bad writer.  It gave me a bad impression of him, because I knew she was loved by feminists everywhere, and when I recovered from my own fixations with him à la Sand, I resolved to read her as soon as possible (which doesn’t explain why it took me nearly twenty-five years to do so–but then we all have to forgive ourselves for some derelictions of this sort).  So you can imagine my disgust and chagrin to find, over the course of the last month or so, that though her shorter works are passable, her novel Indiana, the first novel she published under the name George Sand, was so unreadable that I actually must simply disappoint you and tell you that I was unable to finish it for this post (I did valiantly soldier through 166 of 272 pages, but just decided that I had better things to do and more valid and important chores than listening to her dither on about every emotional qualm and quirk and in and out–though there were amazingly few “ins and outs” of a sexual nature for a novel supposedly about love and lust–of some tepid love affairs which her narrator kept telling me were hot stuff, without being able one whit to convince me.  In this case, she could’ve made do with a little more “showing” and a lot less “telling”!).

But to be fair to you my readers, I should begin at the intended beginning of my post and give you the good parts that I can reproduce (from Wikipedia) about her life, because her life was apparently far more interesting than her works, just to judge by what I’ve seen (and I’m going to refer you to Wikipedia for a fuller biography as well, because I don’t want to tax your patience here by retailing absolutely every detail).  George Sand was born Amantine (or Amandine) Lucile Aurore Dupin, to an aristocratic father and a petit bourgeoise mother, and was raised largely by her paternal grandmother on the family estate of Nohant at Berry.  She was born in 1804 and died in 1876, thus living through several changes of government in France.  She became a French novelist and memoirist of world fame.  Aurore (as she was often known to friends) had two children, Maurice and Solange, with her legal husband, Casimir Dudevant, before a separation finally was agreed upon by the two of them.  She had numerous affairs with famous men, among them Prosper Mérimée, Alfred de Musset, and Frédéric Chopin.  Franz Liszt and Gustave Flaubert were close friends, Flaubert having started out as a “pen pal,” and George Sand was much admired by Honoré de Balzac.  There was also some hint in her letters and in her life of a lesbian affair with the actress Marie Norval.  Sand’s literary debut was the result of a liaison with the writer Jules Sandeau, whose name she partially borrowed for her own nom de plumeIndiana was her first complete novel under her new pen name.  Sand also was the author of some literary criticism and political texts as a socialist.  Some of her less significant but more startling and apparently memorable characteristics to people at large were that she often dressed in men’s clothes and smoked in public, not usually permitted to women at that time.

The first novella of Sand’s that I read was passingly interesting, inasmuch as it reversed a formula for writing with a lot of both male and female writers even now, in which the woman is the object of a man’s attentions and desires.  In this novella, entitled The Marquise, a French noblewoman falls in love not with her socially accepted actual lover, the Vicount de Larrieux, but with a somewhat seedy actor named Lélio, who enchants her by the nobility, grandeur, and passion which he assumes in his roles on the stage.  She is the subject and he is the object, and he falls in love with her too, but the ending is not what you might suppose it to be (no, you’ll have to read it for yourself, but it’s more interesting than Indiana, and it’s shorter, too.  It also comes in a volume with another novella by Sand, Pauline, both ably translated by two collaborators from the Academy Chicago Publishers, Sylvie Charron and Sue Huseman).  As one of the two commentators remarks, “Sand deconstructs the myth of the seducer (Don Juan) by reversing roles….”

As to Pauline, the second of the two novellas I recently read of Sand’s, it’s centered rather more on the relationship between two women than on any romantic relationship featuring a woman and a man, though there is a relationship between one of the two women and a man which is of secondary plot interest.  What I mean is this:  the two young women, Pauline and Laurence, have diametrically opposed lives and interests.  They part when young, but meet up again before they are old.  Pauline has spent years taking care of her mother while Laurence, while living with her own mother and two younger sisters, has had a successful career on the stage (at a time when the theatre was still a somewhat scandalous career for a woman).  Pauline goes to live with Laurence, and meets a male friend of hers who is not trustworthy, but whom Laurence does not at first suspect to be out to wreck the peace of the household.  Montgenays, the male “friend,” wants to be a lover of Laurence’s, but tries to achieve his objective of making her jealous by making up to the more naive Pauline, who falls in love with him.  Laurence figures the schemer’s motives out and tries to prevent Pauline from ruining her life over him, but Pauline is jealous of her and suspects her motives to be interested.  Again, I’m not going to give a spoiler, because this one is good enough to read for yourself.  The novel Indiana is a different matter.

With every intent to be fair (Sand wrote Indiana not long after she had started out as a writer), I can’t like this book.  But I will tell you a bit about it, so that if you are interested by the topic, you can read it yourself in spite of me and perhaps have something more vital to say about it than I do.  It has plenty of promise, dealing with the topics (which are potentially titillating enough for everyone) of “adultery, social constraint, unfulfilled longing for romantic love,…[the] exploration of nineteenth century female desire” complicated “by class constraints and by social codes about infidelity,” and by the question of “women’s equality in France…[u]nder the Napoleonic code.”  No one could claim that this book doesn’t go by the old saw “all drama is conflict.”  After all, when people want to share passion and everyone and everything around them frustrates them (note the restraints mentioned just above), that’s conflict!  In addition, there’s historical interest (possibly) in the picture of the “subordination of the colonies to the French empire.”

The story concerns Indiana Delmare, an aristocratic Creole from the French colony of Bourbon (now called Réunion), married to a much older husband, Colonel Delmare, and living in the small family circle of him, herself, and her British cousin Rodolphe (Ralph) Brown.  Noun, a less aristocratic Creole, her “milk sister”–the literal translation for “foster sister,” i.e., a baby who was fed by the same nurse’s breasts, and who becomes a companion or servant to the primary character–meets a young aristocrat named Raymon de Ramière, and becomes his sexual victim, while he is really in love with Indiana and wants to be her lover instead.  Noun becomes pregnant by Raymon and when she finds out that he loves Indiana, drowns herself.  After this, this book promptly becomes less and less interesting.  Noun is really the most interesting character in it, for the short time she is there.  This is because, I think, of something else that Wikipedia generously offers up, in its wisdom:  the book is full of the “conventions of romanticism, realism, and idealism.”  That’s a lot of isms in one novel to be dealing with, back and forth, back and forth.  First, the characters are saying ridiculously romantic things to each other, then the narrator is putting the reader at least firmly back on his or her feet by realistically focusing on what the characters actually hope to gain (psychoanalyzing them, pre-Freud, that is).  Finally, the characters (particularly Indiana and her cousin Ralph, with whom I’ve been told by Wikipedia that she actually ends up living on a farm in the colonies–sorry, no way to avoid this spoiler) are idealized versions of people.  It’s hard to imagine even the two most noble characters trying out life together on a farm such as the kinds that were often resorted to in the Romantic period and later by idealistic poets and writers:  so there’s the idealism.  I want to emphasize, though, that even the idealism is tempered by investigation of motives:  even Ralph, who is said to seem boring and phlegmatic to all the other characters because they don’t understand him, and who has possibly even better motives than Indiana herself, is examined in depth in some parts of the novel.  As Sand says of Raymon and Indiana, respectively, one was mind, the other was heart:  in retelling their stories, she is both mind and heart, and is to be commended for having both, even though I find her terribly tedious in this book.  I did like the two novellas, and might even like other books of hers, who knows?

It’s only fair, after panning Indiana so thoroughly, to tell you what its commentator says:  “Filled with autobiographical allusions, psychological undertones, brilliantly drawn characters, and the well-reasoned attack on male domination of women that so frightened its [original] reviewers, Indiana remains a mesmerizing classic and a wonderful introduction to one of the greatest women authors of all time.”  In an odd way, the drawbacks of the book are at the same time its virtues.  While it painstakingly examines the characters, their motives, and their causes, and does so with an energy and knowingness that proclaims its writer’s inner knowledge of that of which she speaks, it does go on and on, and there’s a point at which so many twists and turns of the emotions could only be interesting to the people involved (you know, when you hear lovers arguing intensely about something, or overhear a woman or man trying to describe a lover’s quarrel to a best friend, how you sometimes get the feeling that you “just had to be there”?).  Well, even though I’ve been there, I find it painful rather than enlightening to go over so many old conundrums and riddles of the heart and mind so intricately dealt with, at least as Sand does it, and since I know you don’t want me either to “go on and on,” I leave you with this thought, expressed better than I can say it by another expert on love, also with the first name George (Gordon, Lord Byron):

“So, we’ll go no more a-roving/So late into the night,/Though the heart be still as loving,/And the moon be still as bright./For the sword outwears its sheath,/And the soul wears out the breast,/And the heart must pause to breathe,/And love itself have rest./Though the night was made for loving,/And the day returns too soon,/Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/By the light of the moon.”

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4 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

4 responses to “When “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a useless remark….or, George Sand and me….

  1. This was very entertaining. I had good luck with The Devil’s Pool, especially the last third or so which does not even have a story, but is more of an anthropological description of a village wedding.

    I have read good things about Consuelo, which is filled with wild episodes, at least, but I fear my experience with it would end up like yours with Indiana. But who knows.

    • Hi, Tom. Thanks for your input and your tolerance for the long wait at getting an answer to your remark (for some weird reason, even though you’ve been on my site before, you got marked as spam, and I didn’t know it until I just now completed one of my periodic scans. Please feel free to comment any time). Yes, I think in hindsight my problem with “Indiana” was that it’s all interior psychological action, and too little physical action or just plain plot (which doesn’t explain why I’ve liked other mainly psychological authors, but Sand, while topping a lot of them in perspicuity, drags things out and goes into such detail about every nuance of emotion that I just want to tell the characters–and the narrator, for that matter–to get over themselves). I was so disappointed not to like her first major novel, but thanks for recommending other likeable books–we can all stand to learn something, right?

  2. Victoria, I love it that you read the writers I SHOULD be reading. It occurs to me as well that sometimes classics, or just older literature, fails to interest us because those who came later learned from their strengths and weaknesses. Though you dislike Sand’s work, your consideration itself is proof that literature is news that stays news, as someone wise said . . .

    • HI, Richard. Yours is exactly the perspective I needed to get my own reactions into some better form. Yes, I should say we’ve all learned a lot from Sand, and the price we pay is having to put up with some of the more exasperating or duller stuff along with the more sprightly things that appeal to us. I can see going back to other works of hers some time later to attempt to find what others have valued so much. And thanks for commenting: your voice is a sane voice in a void.

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