Sunday, April 05, 2015

The fictional memoirs of George Sand: Elizabeth Berg's The Dream Lover

This work marks best-selling writer Berg’s first major venture into biographical historical fiction, a move that’s partly successful. Her subject is exciting and on-trend: George Sand, the nineteenth-century French writer whose insightful novels took readers by storm, and whose cross-dressing persona and many love affairs scandalized contemporary society.

Born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in 1804, she lived by her own rules, and her imagined voice—warm, sincere, and wise—is wonderfully disarming. As Sand examines her past, from her tense relationships with blood relations through her unhappy marriage and subsequent flight to independence in Paris, we’re introduced to this fascinating woman.

Berg’s descriptive skills are remarkable throughout, but Sand’s actions are too often reported from a distance rather than dramatized. This memoir-like style lets us learn about and admire Sand without placing us in the moment with her. There are exceptions, though, such as her scenes with actress Marie Dorval—her deepest, most passionate attachment—and her philosophical reflections on her continued search for love. It’s at these times that her story feels most immediate and alive.

The Dream Lover is published on April 14th by Random House (hardcover, $28, 368pp).  It appears on the LibraryReads list for April.  This review first appeared in Booklist's Feb 15th issue.

The novel is being heavily promoted, and the packaging is gorgeous. The flourishes on the image above are a little less prominent on the real thing, and her hair blends in more with the dark background.  From the moment I first saw it, I wondered if the image was a softened version of German artist Joseph Karl Stieler's portrait of Nanette Kaula, which appears in Ludwig I's Gallery of Beauties. The jacket doesn't say, but based on the listed source for the painting, it's possible.


13 comments:

  1. Your observation about the similarity to the Nanette Kaula portrait is marvelous. Wow! What an eagle eye you have! Not at all how my mind's eye imagined Amantine/George, I must confess. I think I'd better read more about her just to correct my incorrect impressions!

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    1. When I was in Munich a few years ago and visited Nymphenburg Palace, I bought a book with all of the portraits in the beauty gallery, which is why Kaula's portrait came to mind when I saw the book cover. The novel focuses more on her personal life and affairs than her writing, so if it's insight into her literary life that you're looking for, a bio would be the best bet.

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  2. Hello Sarah,
    I agree with Alex. You have a great memory and eye for detail. The portrait of Nanette is very striking.
    I don't know very much about the life of George Sand, except for her cross dressing and relationship with Chopin (I vaguely remember seeing a film which dealt with this) so would be interested to read more about her personal life.

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    1. Thanks, Yvonne - I always wanted to see one of the gallery portraits on a book cover and wondered why I hadn't yet, since they're all gorgeous. The one he painted of Jane Digby makes her look radiant. (Another historical figure who deserves a worthy novel!)

      Was the film you saw Impromptu? It's one I meant to see after finishing this novel, but I never got around to it.

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    2. The film I saw was an old one. A B&W (now I'm showing my age). From memory it starred Merle Oberon. Can't remember who played Chopin or the title of the film. Impromptu is much more recent. I haven't seen it either, but will certainly look for it now.

      A very lovely portrait of Jane Digby. A novel about her would be incredible. She had such an adventurous life.

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    3. That's really interesting. I'll have to look for that older film.

      There have been a couple of novels about Jane Digby, both older (and quite rare and unfortunately expensive), and neither does her justice, imho. There's plenty of room for a good one!

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  3. Sand was magnetic, by all accounts, but also by all accounts, though not in the least homely or ugly (as was George Eliot), she was not a beauty.

    Her life was so event-filled and filled with such influential and important friends and acquaintances, no novel could do it justice, in my personal, humble opinion! :)

    Love, C.

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    1. The hairstyles from back in Sand's day aren't very flattering to modern eyes (see example). Even so, she doesn't resemble the gorgeous portrait on the cover a great deal.

      I think you're right, that it would be difficult to encapsulate such a life into a single novel. Still, I wish the telling of this one was less dispassionate. When she's attending gatherings with the other literary lights and political figures of the day, I'd like to feel like I'm there with them. This novel didn't provide that experience.

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  4. Why is it impossible to imagine Sand existing in the U.S. in exactly that same time period?

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    1. I would agree with you!

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    2. For one thing, in the U.S. during Sand's years of greatest notoriety, these were the decades of ever expanding Jacksonian democracy. That Sand was a member of the aristocratic class had a great deal to do with how she was able to flout traditional gender behaviors in everything from dress to leading the life of an artist -- she was fully subsidized out of family wealth too. These conditions did not exist in the U.S. at that time. You only begin to see female figures acting in public without being punished by either family or society -- including being throw into prison or asylums -- until the later 1870's. as with the Woodhull and Claflin sisters, for instance. Harriet Beecher Stowe's career was allowed partly because she remained the perfect "little woman," and emerged out of what was then allowed as a stage for women's action and agency, the abolition movement.

      The Civil War is one of the great hinges of our social and material history in a very different way than the ratification of the Constitution was -- which ultimately changed nothing in terms of jurisprudence for women, native Americans, African Ameerics or the poor. Jacksonian populism put a sheen of change upon matters for poor white MEN as the franchise was ever widened, but again, it was about men.

      But the Civil War and the huge loss of men in the age brackets that typically run things, opened a great deal for women, despite them not receiving the franchise -- and not only because so many women had to handle things for themselves now, without fathers, brothers and husbands, or even sons.

      France and the U.S. are very different despite both having had revolutions. Ultimately class in France, particularly after the imperial years of Napoleon, still mattered more than anything else for one's life, particularly if one is a woman.

      Love, C.

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  5. Oh, too bad this one is a miss - I was hoping it would live up to its protagonist. The cover IS lovely, and you're spot on about the painting.

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    1. Unfortunately, I was disappointed - although the novel does have a lot of fans. The style just didn't work for me. Glad you agree about the painting!

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