Laura: A Journey into the Crystal, George Sand

No, I didn’t read it in French, I just preferred this French cover. Laura: A Journey into the Crystal (1864) is the 44th of Sand’s 60 odd novels/novellas. I have previously reviewed Sand’s The Devil’s Pool and Elizabeth Berg’s fictionalized and very readable bio, The Dream Lover, if you want more details of Sand’s life. In his 1910 biography, Rene Doumic writes, George Sand wrote for nearly half a century. For fifty times three hundred and sixty-five days, she never let a day pass by without covering more pages than other writers in a month. Her first books shocked people, her early opinions were greeted with storms. From that time forth she rushed head-long into everything new, she welcomed every chimera and passed it on to us with more force and passion in it. Hence the 60 books.

The book’s thesis is that the crystal interiors of geodes have “landscapes” mimicking those of the exterior/real world, and that the story’s narrator Alexis can be transported into these interior landscapes by his cousin Laura. Brona – who kindly sent me her copy of this work – asks is this Science Fiction or is it dreams? (here) The answer is probably that in the early days of SF the two were indistinguishable.

One clue is on p.30. Laura is describing to Alexis what they can see around them

Here is mad labradorite, the reflections from its facets by turn colourless and pearly, and adventurine with silver rain that displays its polished flanks, while the fires of red, warm almandine, whose praises were once sung by a seer called Hoffman, are concentrated around the centre of its austere mountain.

The Hoffman she refers to is ETA Hoffman (1776-1822), a German/Prussian author of fantastical stories (hence Tales of Hoffman). I have been, slowly/intermittently, reading his Master Flea thanks to Jonathon/Intermittencies of the Mind (here).

From Wikipedia I get: Historian Martin Willis argues that Hoffmann’s impact on science fiction has been overlooked, saying “his work reveals a writer dynamically involved in the important scientific debates of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Willis points out that Hoffmann’s work is contemporary with Frankenstein (1818) and with “the heated debates and the relationship between the new empirical science and the older forms of natural philosophy that held sway throughout the eighteenth century.” His “interest in the machine culture of his time is well represented in his short stories, of which the critically renowned The Sandman (1816) and Automata (1814) are the best examples. …Hoffmann’s work makes a considerable contribution to our understanding of the emergence of scientific knowledge in the early years of the nineteenth century and to the conflict between science and magic.

And further searching (how I wish I had some German) reveals the following

Down in the depths below, hidden in the chlorite and mica, lies the cherry-coloured sparkling almandine, on which the tablet of our lives is graven. I have to give it to you as a wedding present.

ETA Hoffman, The Mines of Falun

The Mines of Falun (Die Bergwerke zu Falun) “is one of the most complex stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Starting from an event recalled in old chronicles [the discovery of a perfectly preserved body in a crystal mine], the writer fantasizes on a story that shares only the ending with the documented one, which allows for an extraordinary incursion in other depths, those of the dreams, hallucinations and obsessions. The whole narration demands a reading from a symbolic perspective, where images constantly refer to what lies beyond the apparent.” Luis Montiel, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2014.

Ok, enough antecedents. Laura is early SF, following on from ETA Hoffman whom Sand had clearly read, and the Hoffman connection may explain why she chose a German setting rather than French. Alexis himself is unsure at times whether he is dreaming or undergoing ‘magic’ or spiritual experience. But that is equally true with ‘hard’ SF today – with concepts like worm holes, faster-than-light communications, telepathy and teleporting being sciency rather than scientific.

Alexis falls in love with Laura (of course) but it soon turns out she is promised to his supervisor whose prospects are more certain.

[Alexis] You laugh, I said, and I suffer; but that is all the same to you, you love neither Walter nor me; you love only marriage, the idea of calling yourself “Madame” and wearing feathers in your hat…

[Laura] Calm yourself, you silly great child! Didn’t I tell you that I love you? Don’t you know that our earthly life is only a vain fantasmagoria, and that we are forever united in the transparent, radiant world of the ideal?

[Note that there are no quotation marks to denote speech. There is no copy on Project Gutenberg so I cannot tell whether this is done by Sand or the translator].

Nasias, who claims to be Laura’s father who has been away many years, appears and wishes to take advantage of Alexis’ ability to materialize inside these crystal worlds. He promises not to marry Laura off and takes Alexis on a voyage – from Kiel in the Baltic, across the North Atlantic, and up the west coast of Greenland (map) – to where they may enter the underworld through a hole in the Arctic.

After months of sledding across ice through the winter dark, guided by the light from a strange diamond, they come to a warm sea and on its far side a volcanic island marking the north pole [Robert Peary’s explorations of north Greenland and the North Pole would not take place until four decades after this book was published].

Eventually the two ascend the mountain at the centre of the island and see beneath them the world’s crystal interior. Nasias plunges onwards, but Laura appears, to rescue Alexis and return him to home

[Laura] … but listen, my dear Alexis: as I leave the crystal world with you, I sense that I am leaving my glamour there. You have always seen me as tall, beautiful, eloquent, almost magical. In reality, you will find me as I am, small, simple, ignorant, a little middle-class, and singing the Ballad from Saul out of key.

A happy ending ensues, of course, and Sand implies a prosaic explanation for all that has gone before, but for 100 pages she has taken us on an imaginative, exciting adventure.

.

George Sand, Laura: A Journey into the Crystal, first pub. 1864. Translated by Sue Dyson, Pushkin Press, London, 2004, 2nd Ed. 2018. 126pp.

Rene Doumic, George Sand: Some Aspects of Her Life and Writings, first pub. 1910. Translated by Alys Hallard. Project Gutenberg (here)

15 thoughts on “Laura: A Journey into the Crystal, George Sand

    • I’m not recommending you read it, though there are 1960s hippie elements – crystals, spiritualism though not as much women’s lib as you might expect from Sand’s life – that might appeal to someone who was at least in the same half of the USA as Woodstock.

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  1. The only kind of science I ever wanted to learn in school was earth sciences, and I ended up finally get a chance to do so in college. While there was much interesting material about how mountains and canyons are made, earthquakes, the way water travels, etc, there was also a whole unit on memorizing a box of rocks that we had to buy from the bookstore, like some sort of gravelly text book. What a way to take the magic out of rocks. I do love how the molecular structure is what makes things break on a fault line, as crystals do, and can see what an imaginative space it would be for a writer.

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    • My daughter, the geology PhD (7 years and nearly there) would think a box of rocks the ideal text book. Her kids have rock collections, there are rocks on the book shelves, and photos of interesting rocks in her Facebook travels. In fact, I should pass this book along to her.

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      • Oh, I have loads of rocks and was that irritating kid who put her clothes in the dirty laundry only to freak everyone out because my pockets were full of rocks and caterpillars. However, the box was just your regular brownish sedimentary rocks.

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  2. Like Melanie I had dreams of studying geology (at least at highschool level) until a move mid-teens, took me to a highschool that didn’t offer geology as a choice in the senior years (so I did general science instead and topped the year thanks to my depth study of Marie Curie).
    Anyway that’s my way of saying I’m not a complete novice when it comes to minerals and rocks and gems, but I am when it comes to SF. So thank you for picking up on the Hoffman reference which passed me by completely and for then doing the research. It does actually add something to the story knowing that.

    I guess my question is though, did you enjoy Laura in the end?

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    • I enjoy the history of literature. I am interested to know Sand’s writing better, and I was fascinated by the connection to the first days of SF. And the love story had the right amount of tension, so yes I enjoyed it. Thank you.
      The enjoy question is not always straightforward. Some books are fun but in the end you need books with some meat to them.

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  3. I read a biography of George Sand back in my teens or early twenties, but I have never read any of her books. I do like a novella so maybe this is my opportunity though it doesn’t really sound like my sort of thing!

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  4. Did you ever see the film Impromptu (1991)? About Sand and Chopin? I “discovered” Sand via a second-hand copy of her diaries when I was in my 20s and I fell hard for her, but I never enjoyed her fiction quite as much as those diaries (and, later, a collection of letters), although I only read a couple of her novels. I think I’d just imagined something different, whereas of course, if she was earning from her pen, she’d be writing a certain kind of story, as in, the kind that sells. Heheh

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    • I didn’t see the movie. I actually like movies, and the experience of going to the movies, but I rarely make the time. The idea of George Sand’s life I find really interesting and I was/am hoping to find that opposition to/difficulties with marriage in her fiction in the same way that you do in (C19th Australian authors) Rosa Praed, Catherine Helen Spence, and on in to the C20th with Miles Franklin and so on. But once she sorted out her first husband and regained control of her grandmother’s property, Nohant, and therefore some financial independence, it is starting to seem to me that Sand was more interested in writing than with feminism. I think my next step should be to read the Doumic biography

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