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Frédéric Chopin spent the winter of 1838-39 with his lover and her two children in a monastery in Mallorca. The lover was the Romantic novelist best known by the male pseudonym under which she wrote most of her works: George Sand. Chopin was 28, Sand 34.
He was working on a new set of preludes for solo piano. She was working on a novel, Spiridion. He was unmarried and consumptive, she robust and with custody of her son and daughter from her unhappy marriage. As he ploughed away, sickly and petulant, at his piano, she took charge of things, stomping across the island with her famous trousers, boots and cigar.
The characters and the setting are, naturally, a novelist’s dream. But Sand got there first, writing her own book, Un hiver à Majorque, published in 1841. What might a latter-day writer make of the same materials? One way of doing it might be to see the events of the winter through Chopin’s eyes. But Nell Stevens has gone for something much less obvious.
Briefly, A Delicious Life is told by Blanca, a ghost who haunts the charterhouse where the not-quite-family are staying. Blanca was ill-used in her lifetime by the monks of the charterhouse and spends her afterlife meting out, insofar as her immaterial existence allows, a sort of feminist justice: spiking the meals of a gluten-intolerant lecher with breadcrumbs or turning their dreams into nightmares. At first sight of the handsome Sand, she is – like so many men and women who met her – in love.
The idea of a story told by a lesbian ghost is amusing, but risks seeming tacky, the crudely feminist angle surely rather passé by now. But Stevens turns out to have more up her sleeve than the idea first promises. She inhabits Sand’s mind, as Blanca at various points herself does in a more literal sense, giving us a sympathetic glimpse of Chopin through them: “Some days he is so ill he looks shrunken, wide-eyed like a child, and George is so over-come with love she almost wants to breastfeed him.”
There are lapses in the prose – as when Blanca speaks of the family’s “sleep schedules” or of “handsy” monks and people who contemplate “faking their own deaths”. The trouble is not so much anachronism as the intrusion of language belonging to a quite different aesthetic universe. Stevens is much better on the weather, the light, the maritime smells and textures of the island: “I tasted octopus in the mouths of rich women in a big, fusty house by the water. I felt the appalling and brilliant itch of bites from the mosquitoes that swarmed around the traders’ children.”
Blanca anticipates the reader’s questions: “What is desire, without a body to have it in?” A ghost’s desire, she beautifully replies, is “like the kind of hunger people get in dreams”. More to the point, she raises the question of how good a feminist she can be with her penchant for entering into other people’s bodies and minds. “I was a hypocrite,” she concludes at one point, “a creepy dead hypocrite.”
Near the end, as the “delicious” vacation threatens to devolve into tragedy, Blanca imagines an even deeper question: “Weren’t you just a lovelorn hanger-on, clinging on to people who were more interesting and more alive than you, just to feel something?” At this point, we see how the ghostly device might earn its keep. The creepiness and hypocrisy of the ghost turns out to be a useful analogy for the novelist, just as cavalier about the lines between private and public, at ease with betraying confidences.
But the analogy is set out with the lightest of touches and never belaboured. At one point, Stevens describes Sand, in her first flush of Romantic rebellion, entertaining the thought that the world “is full of cowards” and that “sometimes the opposite of cowardice is playfulness”. This deeply enjoyable, guileful book is the opposite of cowardly in exactly this sense.
Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is published by Picador at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books