February 2007

Emberly Nesbitt

nonfiction

Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand by Benita Eisler

In Benita Eisler’s biography of the 19th century bestselling French novelist George Sand, the author’s life is certainly valued over her work. But such was the case with Sand, who wrote more than ninety novels in her career and never had issues with productivity in her personal life either. Sand was famous for dressing as a man, for her affairs with artists Alfred de Musset and Frédéric Chopin. George Sand’s life and work stuck together like soap opera bubbles and as a subject of a biography, she is slippery at best, but a good literary biography needs to do justice to the work as well as to the life.

The public gobbled up George Sand’s “modern” books as much for the steamy plots as for the cult of celebrity that surrounded the famous authoress. Sand seems to have opened her veins straight into her novels and dropped in her friends and lovers whole. Sand hardly drew nuanced portraits, preferring broader strokes and a more ideological bent. Eisler’s detailed biography summarizes, but barely quotes from Sand’s novels, drawing attention to her lack of style, and to the writer’s serially self-aggrandizing, sanitized self-portraits. But how odd after reading a biography of a writer to find not even the least bit of curiosity about the writing, the work? One gets a sense from Eisler’s biography that Sand’s atmospheric novels should be excused from the room because they could never measure up to George Sand in the flesh.

Love and confession were the guiding principles as Sand pounded out her twenty pages a day in her rural retreat, the family estate Nohant, or in various rented apartments in Paris. Nothing stopped her from writing. But Sand’s ability to enthrall, to jockey for power within a relationship, to throw over and be thrown over, is the main focus of Eisler’s biography. Sand was exceptional and exceptionally energetic, a sexual groundbreaker. The men she tangled with were not the most sympathetic of lovers, but Sand was no saint either. Alfred de Musset was a younger poet when they met. Both he and Sand used their dramatic, at times psychotic, two-year affair to produce tell-all books afterwards. Frédéric Chopin was a delicate, sickly, reserved man who composed a good portion of his masterpieces in the nearly ten years he was Sand’s paramour. Sand was a great admirer of music, as intensely passionate about music as she was about politics. When the relationship with Chopin ended badly, Sand summarily chopped him to pieces in the novel Lucrezia Floriani.

Eisler has previously written biographies of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Lord Byron, and Frédéric Chopin. Eisler’s writing is straightforward and discerning as she parses Sand’s invented documentaries from her truthful fictions, but the portrayal lacks depth. The early portion of the biography concentrates on young Sand’s relationship as the “apple of discord” between an emotionally volatile working-class mother and a rather austere, aristocratic grandmother. Sand assembled an identity, even a mythology, from her mixed class origins: the blue blood and the red. Sand married and had two children, Maurice and Solange, and then divorced. She apprenticed herself as a journalist in Paris, alternating three months in Nohant with the children and three months in Paris without them, eventually taking the English “George” as a first name and appending Sand from her lover at the time, Jules Sandeau, to complete her pen name.

Eisler spends a good portion of the biography framing George Sand’s actions, examining her moves toward various artists, friends and lovers, and spends less time on her role as a mother and writer. Providing nuanced psychological shifts to explain the writer’s pattern of generosity and emotional withholding, Eisler attempts to pin down a life endlessly edited and arranged, mostly by Sand herself, but the biography as a whole does not live and breathe. One can’t help but think the reason it does not has something to do with the portrait of the writer, there is never a window into the work, and has everything to do with the full-blooded character Sand preferred to play off the page.

Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand by Benita Eisler
Counterpoint Press
ISBN: 1582433496
294 Pages