May he roar with pain!

John Sturrock

At the time, George Sand was the celebrity, a retired amorist and noted cross-dresser now publishing without strain two or three novels a year of the improving, marketable kind. Flaubert, too, had had an episode of scandal, when he and Madame Bovary were taken to court in 1857 for obscenity; but he by now was labouring retentively away once again in the service of Apollo, the Olympian specially refurbished by him as ‘the god of crossings-out’. Sand’s oeuvre was enormous on its way to filling 77 volumes in the collected edition; Flaubert’s was heroically small, some six books in all by the end of his life, a costive bequest but one that was to be gloriously increased later on by the volumes in which the Apollonian toiler is released on parole, to indulge himself with Dionysiac abandon and create the most uninterruptedly enjoyable correspondence of any French writer: Flaubert’s masterpiece, as André Gide rightly thought it.

The third volume of the splendid new Pléiade edition covers ten calendar years and the exchange with Sand begins a little before halfway through, in 1863, routinely at first but gaining in style and idiosyncrasy as it becomes more regular, though without ever dominating this third volume as the wonderful letters Flaubert wrote to his mistress Louise Colet dominated the second. The hectic and intrusive Colet is by this date gone from Flaubert’s life, a ‘bonne Muse’ no longer requiring to be fended off by letter but sacrificed once and for all to the autonomy of Work. She resurfaces only in her fits of vengeance, as the author of Lui, the second novel, following Une histoire de soldat, in which she worked off her animus against her unbiddable lover (Flaubert to Ernest Feydeau: ‘Since you’ve read Lui, read Une histoire de soldat. I assure you it will amuse you. It’s much better, because I’m in the foreground’), and of an anonymous letter to him years later accusing him of, among other failings, having sucked up to the emperor, Napoleon III. As an addressee the turbulent Colet is a real loss, because Flaubert’s letters to her are the most vigorously and drolly intimate he ever wrote. Sand is a replacement of a soberer kind, a mother-figure almost twenty years older than him, and of a seemingly contagious serenity after all the rough weather she had been through in her earlier days: ‘Such character! Such strength! And at the same time there is no one whose company is more soothing’ is Flaubert’s comment after Sand has been to stay with him. Writing to her, he is on his best behaviour, mild-mannered by his standards, sympathetic, confiding, envious in his low moments of her uncomplicated domesticity and innocent of the comradely bawdy and fecal tropes with which he seasons his letters to his men-friends (and one or two other women-friends).

Only through letters could two natures as discordant as those of Sand and Flaubert have entered into this prolific a friendship; any greater closeness would surely have tried it fatally. They coincided occasionally in Paris, where Sand was the only woman to be invited to the celebrated dinners ‘chez Magny’, and there were rare visits, by her to him in Croisset or by him to her in Nohant. These went better than had seemed likely beforehand. After Sand had stayed with him for a first time some three years into their correspondence proper, a relieved Flaubert wrote to Edma Roger des Genettes:

My illustrious friend left me on Saturday evening. Never was there a better woman, more good-natured and less of a bluestocking. She worked all day, and in the evenings we chattered like magpies till three in the morning. Though she’s a bit too benevolent and free with her approval, she has subtle and sensible insights, provided she doesn’t get astride her socialist hobby-horse.

In return, three years later, Flaubert proved a surprisingly agile and hearty guest at Christmas-time, dressing up as a woman and dancing a Spanish dance – though when he visited again al Nohant Sand rather went off him, deciding he was by this time too ‘literary’ and conversation-hogging from living on his own and less fun to be with than Turgenev, her other house-guest.

Mainly they trusted to a long-distance meeting of minds, rather than putting their friendship at risk from the small annoyances of a cohabitation, however brief. Flaubert was not in any case the man to share a house with; he tells the Princesse Mathilde at one point not to be fooled by his ‘gross gendarme’s envelope’, that the least thing gets on his nerves and that he lives in greater dread ‘of a squeaking door than of being betrayed by a friend’ (a comparison speaking more to some of us than that made in an opposite direction by E.M. Forster). As correspondents he and Sand may agree on such matters as the avariciousness of the bourgeoisie or the harm Catholicism has done and continues to do to the condition of France, but more profitably they diverge, writing at a tangent rather than directly to one another, and sparing us too many of the mortifying politenesses of corroboration.

Sand was the positive, sentimental one of the two, the one who believed in things: in the fundamental goodness of people, in family (with the exception of her difficult daughter Solange), in nature, in immortality, in some vague but assured upward movement of the human race. Flaubert would have none of all that. He believed in Beauty, as a Platonic principle or ‘virtue’ realisable by ascesis in his own prose, and in the facts proven by Science; but he was revolted by tame, as he thought them, Christian conceptions of God and morally and politically was a rabid deteriorationist, for whom all historical movement was downwards. In the most exuberantly anti-social moments of his correspondence he writes as Disgusted of Croisset, whose opinion it is in the very first letter of the new Pléiade volume that ‘we are dancing about on the rotten boards of a vast latrine. Humanity, for my part, makes me want to vomit.’ The latrine image is a favourite to which he returns, being ready in his letters to allow himself the repetitions of words and sounds he spent days on end grumblingly removing from his other writing

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