George Sand, nee Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, was the first acknowledged female bestselling author, a political provocateur and an unapologetic lover of men (and, likely, women) famous and ordinary. Her life and work have been recounted in multiple biographies and an autobiography. And yet still she fascinates.
Novelist Elizabeth Berg attempts to capitalize on this fascination in “The Dream Lover,” another in the nouveau genre of fiction fancifully spun around a historical figure. Apparently, autobiography isn’t enough. At any rate, Berg saw an opportunity “to pick and choose among the delicious ‘facts’ of Sand’s life in order to imagine a story.”
What a story it could be. Sand’s unconventional family life (sprinkled with illegitimacies, courtesans and minor royalty) provoked in her a spirit of rebellion. She scandalously left her husband and children in the sleepy French countryside for the more intellectual and carnal environs of Paris, on whose streets she wore men’s clothes and smoked, and where she made her way through the beds of the most celebrated artists of the day, most famously Chopin’s.
Perhaps influenced by Sand’s famous quotation, “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved,” Berg has emphasized this facet of her life, to the point of numbness. Sand is continually abandoning an old love or on the precipice of a new one, which is always ardently requited. Of writer Jules Sandeau (whose name she abbreviated and adopted), she says, “In spite of my being so much older than he, I saw that he was equally drawn to me.” The actress Marie Dorval declares, “I tell you this truly, George, to be near you is to be reborn.” The poet Alfred de Musset rhapsodizes: “Ah, George, your eyes are portals.”
Then there were the dashing young lawyer, the handsome doctor and the other dashing young lawyer. Not to mention her intimate friendships with Flaubert, Delacroix and Liszt — the list goes on. It must have been a dizzying pace to live; it certainly is to read, especially as the chapters bounce back and forth between Sand’s tumultuous (yet, somehow, tedious) youth and her adulthood. Wait, what year is it and which man is she living with now?
Berg’s copious research sometimes inserts itself ostentatiously (“On November 5, I was invited to a musical soiree at the home of Frederic Chopin”), but she does a quite credible job of creating Sand’s narcissistic 19th-century voice, a laudable feat for an author whose other novels are grounded in the present. And there are many lovely passages, such as this account of an evening spent with Liszt and his wife: “Franz and I watched her as if in a dream, beneath a rising moon that finally settled, seemingly caught in the branches of the pines. In the stillness, one could almost hear the heartbeat of the earth. I sought out Franz’s eyes and understood that he heard music in what we were seeing. As for me, phrases floated into my brain. I believed that the next day each of us would translate some part of the experience into our respective art.”
Ah, yes, you are reminded, she writes! Despite the excerpts from Sand’s best-known works, this most pertinent aspect feels greatly diminished under all the breathless bosom-heaving. Early on, Berg has her proclaim, “My true love became my pen … and the pages I stacked up on my desk each night,” but everything that precedes and follows belies this.
Ivan Turgenev reportedly said of Sand, “What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.” True to its title, “The Dream Lover” largely reduces this enigmatic figure so admired by the Russian to a schoolgirl.
Cynthia Dickison is a features designer at the Star Tribune.