Becoming George Sand
To the reader, the act of reading a good novel is not unlike taking a Sunday drive. While the Sunday weather is, to a great extent, determined by the degree of pleasure the reader experiences as he drives along, page by page, chapter by chapter, the road itself—its twists and turns, bumps, crests, and potholes, its slow passages and gun-it straightaways—is all the creation of the author.
Thus, the act of reading is all about the relationship of the reader, in his imaginary roadster with the author and the particular topology of his or her narrative.
Like the Sunday drive, the pleasure of reading a novel has to do with the excitement of exploration—of discovering places that have, heretofore, been located off the map of personal knowledge—combined with the joy of seeing what lies along the way, from happy cows to trees with leaves in autumnal colors, to the occasional tire swing, farm stand, or hitchhiking amnesiac—things that might lure the reader to linger, or encourage him to hurry on.
Problems arise when the reader is able to predict the undulations of the plot before they arrive, or, worse, if the destination becomes all too clear long before its arrival. Such is the case with Becoming George Sand: A Novel by Rosalind Brackenbury.
What starts out in early promise of being a grand drive through Big Sur on the King’s Highway quickly shows itself instead to be a trip to the mall.
In cases of predictable landscapes, the reader hopes instead for the autumn colors, for details that will explode upon the page, momentary surprises to mollify his jaded sensibility. And here our author serves us a bit better, as Roslind Brackenbury is not only a novelist of some note, this being her tenth novel, but a poet as well. With a provocative eye, she delivers some bits of welcoming curb appeal that spruce up her otherwise drab boulevards.
A case in point, a lovely moment early on, as Maria and her lover enter the foyer of her Edinburgh home:
“She picks up damp mail from the inside mat, places it on the hall table; even now she has the impulse to tidy thing, even with him coming in close behind her like a tall shadow in his dark coat, even with the burning feeling she already has inside. The house is silent, with the dense silence of having been empty of its occupants for several hours. She feels it instantly, its moods and atmospheres. There’s clutter in the hall, boots kicked off—Emily’s old ones—too many coats hung on the back of the door, a sports bag nobody has claimed. There’s still a faint smell of breakfast, old toast and coffee.”
The story is Maria’s, an academic and author of authorly books on authorly subjects. In this case, her topic is French writer George Sand, the most notorious of women. George Sand, “feministe, republicaine, precurseure,” the spiritual and theoretical ancestor who had to come before so that Maria could be standing there now, in her foyer, that dark shadow following her inside, or, later, afterward, be sitting calmly in her study, a half eaten sandwich in her lap, a half filled wine glass in her hand, reading Sand in the original French while family members trundle in and past, saying hello, blowing kisses, saying goodnight.
Too quickly the parallels fall into place, with Maria discovering herself and her needs as a woman, a mother, and an author through imagining the life of George Sand for a biography of sorts—a work of wild passion for which Maria has yet to find a structure. (“It’s a matter of form,” her friend Marguerite tells her, on reading the book, “You haven’t got the form. But it will come.”) And so the form comes, slowly, formed of Scottish ice, French clay and Majorcan fog.
Throughout the text, Marguerite fulfills her roles, first as confidant, who always speaks in epithets that Maria can recall in moments of need (“It doesn’t matter what people say about writers, really,” she says, “Because their lives are like a river, a deep-running river, and all you can see is the surface, where dragonflies flit about. The rest can never quite by plumbed.”), and then as sacrificial lamb, whose loss leads to Maria’s oh-so-necessary Aha! moment, so that she can, at last, finish her book.
Everyone else tends to fulfill the role assigned them as well—the younger lover, the husband who is shell-shocked by the betrayal, the bookstore owner—all written as if lifted from central casting with the characters seeming rather like actors who are happy just to be working at all, no matter how little they are given to work with.
And then there is the issue of George Sand herself.
Not content to relegate Sand just to literary sacred monster, Ms. Brackenbury attempts putting her on the page, top hat, cigar and all, along with a coughing Chopin, her children, wild-child Solange, hapless Maurice, and the various flotsam and jetsam of her emotional life—all with weak results.
Sand’s historically poor choice of Majorca as her getaway and intended site where she could, simultaneously, restore the tubercular Chopin back to health (a failure to the point that he was nearly dead by the time she got him back to the mainland), seal their love for each other and write any number of bestsellers in order to support her brood is written in particularly broad strokes, rather as a variant of I Remember Mama, in which poor, put-upon George must go out daily to get the family’s goat milk, roasted goat and goat cheese, while no one understands or appreciates her efforts.
But George Sand, the woman who stands as a giant dark shadow in the hallway herself like a secret lover, the complex ancestral force of female will, female creativity and female politics in all-too-human form is nowhere captured in these pages. Instead, she is relegated to stilted dialogue and a somewhat fevered viewpoint of “what might have been” that seems borrowed from a historical romance novel.
That Ms. Brackenbury, whose central character Maria does little more than stand around picking at her own emotional scabs while ignoring the fresh, bleeding wounds of those all around her, would attempt to stretch her reach from the merely-human Maria to the larger-than-life George Sand is certainly admirable. Sadly it is also an example of her reach extending far beyond her grasp.
Only once, only briefly does the image of the real George Sand appear within these pages, and even there it is muted by the author’s need to reference back to that deep, dark river that lurks within every writer’s soul:
“Late at night, every night, with coffee and little cigars to keep her going, while the others slept, she wrote; till three, till four, till it was nearly light, using the silent hours, casting her hook into the silent depths, her river. In the early evening in summer, going down to swim. All night, hearing it run.”
There she, at last, briefly, a George Sand that is worth becoming. A driven being who moves through life like a scythe. Would that we were given more of a chance to know her.
If, one Sunday afternoon, you wish to take a drive over some very familiar terrain that has been, here and there, festooned with some fresh local color, then Becoming George Sand is for you. It is, by all measures, a perfectly fine novel.
But if you are seeking a book that lives up to the promise that the title makes, drive on. By all means, drive on.