Letters That Are Literature

CONSIDERED by some critics to be "the finest correspondence of the past century, perhaps ... of all time," these letters between two major figures in 19th-century French literature are a touching portrait of a friendship. They also present an illuminating ongoing discussion of literary and artistic issues that preoccupied their century and still concern our own era.

To read them is to savor a scintillating debate between two brilliant orators and to eavesdrop on a heartfelt conversation between two friends.

George Sand (1804-1876), a prolific novelist, journalist, and playwright, became the very model of the 19th century's "modern" woman, known for her outspoken views, her tempestuous love affairs, and her penchant for dressing in men's clothes and smoking cigars. By the time she befriended Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), who was 17 years her junior, however, Sand was in her 60s, leading a more serene existence in the countryside.

If Sand was the Byronesque Romantic, Flaubert - best known as the author of "Madame Bovary" (1857) - would come into his own among the late 19th-century realists and the 20th-century modernists, who saw in him the consummate "objective" artist: a writer who believed in subordinating his personality to his work, and who had a "scientific" commitment to precisely observed detail and an aesthetic dedication to finding le mot juste, exactly the right word.

Their correspondence, begun in 1863, was a sustaining and constructive union of opposites. Flaubert's belief in artistic "objectivity" was very much at odds with Sand's ideas about art. "I feel an unconquerable aversion to putting anything of my heart on paper," he wrote in 1866. "I even think that a novelist hasn't the right to express his opinion on anything whatsoever."

"Not put any of one's heart into what one writes?" Sand replies in shock. "For my part I don't see how one can put anything else."

Ten years later, they're still having the same argument. Sand criticizes Flaubert's latest novel, "Lducation sentimentale," for depicting evil characters without showing that the author deplores their behavior. "You can't prevent your story being a conversation between your reader and yourself. If you show him evil coldly, without ever showing him good, he gets angry. "

Replying, Flaubert stands by his artistic credo: "If the reader doesn't draw from a book the moral it implies, either the reader is an imbecile or the book a sham, in that it lacks authenticity. For if a thing is True, it is good."

If posterity has come to consider Flaubert by far the greater artist, it is Sand who emerges in these letters as the greater-hearted human being.

Both friends were deeply shaken and appalled by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and the ensuing chaos of the revolutionary "Commune" set up in Paris. For Flaubert, long a critic of egalitarianism, these events were a bloody confirmation of his grim predictions about the folly of majority rule.

For Sand, the events were a devastating blow to her faith in human betterment. "I'm as upset as you are, and I daren't ... write for fear of opening up everyone's gaping wounds.... I don't want to do anything but good to the people I love - especially you, who feels everything so deeply," she writes.

Flaubert's words have been translated by the noted scholar Francis Steegmuller, Sand's by prize-winning translator Barbara Bray. Their joint effort, based upon Alphonse Jacobs's original French edition, successfully conveys the freshness, force, vigor, humor, and tenderness of this extraordinary dialogue.

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