Sand's short novel offers an exciting plot, engaging characters, and food for thought as she showcases late Renaissance Venice in an entertaining form. Complex notions, such as the role of the artist, importance of community, and the aesthetic ideal become entirely accessible as they are communicated through lively conversation. Critical appreciation of the work of George Sand (1804-1876), one of the most important women writers in the French tradition, has grown over the last thirty years in parallel to the development of feminist literary studies. But even as her corpus has been rediscovered by readers and re-evaluated by critics, a few gems have remained largely forgotten. With his translation of Sand's "The Master Mosaic Makers" (1837), the first English rendition in over a century, Henry F. Majewski brings once again to light a multifaceted text whose critical reassessment is long overdue. "The Master Mosaic Makers" is a tale written for the pleasure of the author's young son, to whom she dedicates the novel, and it remains a pleasurable text for contemporary readers.
Set in Renaissance Venice, it relates the historically-based story of the Zuccati brothers, mosaic makers in Saint Mark's Basilica who are unjustly accused and imprisoned for poor workmanship, then ultimately freed in an affirmation of the worth of their craft. The translator's admirable introduction to the novel situates it in the context of Sand's lengthy career and her artistic vision, detailing its richness and demonstrating its importance for Sand studies and, more generally, for French literature, women's writing, and aesthetic theory. There is perhaps no one better equipped to the task of translating and elucidating "The Master Mosaic Makers", a novel by a French romantic writer about artisans, than Henry Majewski. Professor Emeritus of French Studies at Brown University, he specializes in 19th-century literature and, in particular, in the romantic period and the relationship between fiction and the visual arts.
His many publications include, most recently, "Transposing Art into Texts in French Romantic Literature" (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), in which he studies the work of ekphrasis - the verbal rendering of a visual representation - in texts by Sand, Honore de Balzac, and Theophile Gautier, among others. As Majewski demonstrates, "The Master Mosaic Makers", although composed early in Sand's long career as a writer, contains traces of many of the interests and passions that motivated her work across the many periods that define it: it is at once an aesthetic treatise, a reflection of the author's utopian vision, a work that reveals her feminist sensibilities, and a study in regionalism. Majewski calls the novel the "embodiment of ideas in fictional structures," a forum allowing Sand to elaborate through her characters and their dialogue on the importance of craft and community in the artistic enterprise.
As such, it provides important insight into the social and artistic principles of the author by questioning the distinction between high and low art (painting versus mosaic making), defending the importance of artisanal work in the artistic endeavour, and deconstructing the trope of the artist as a solitary, male genius figure. We see Sand's own transposition of visual images into words through her careful attention to light and colour. Indeed, mosaic making - the rendering of a painting with tile or glass - itself becomes a metaphor for the process of writing, the manipulation of words, ideas, and images. While rich in detail of 16th-century Italy, the novel carries a utopian vision typical of 19th-century French Romanticism, and in so doing exemplifies Sand's political beliefs. It demonstrates her investment in communitarian ideals, her socialist affiliations, and her defense and idealization of workers - this last correlative to the veneration of peasants evident in her pastoral novels.
And although the novel contains no female characters of note, Majewski convincingly argues that it deserves consideration as a feminist work, in keeping with more explicitly feminist texts that Sand also composed in the 1830s (such as "Indiana" and "Lelia"). Feminist themes present in the novel include reverence for maternal care, indicated by the nurturing qualities found in male characters, and the valorization of craft, which is so often associated with women in opposition to the "great works" of men. In numerous ways, then, this text confirms the findings of leading scholars (such as Isabelle Hoog Naginski and Naomi Schor) that Sand's work defies the dominant strain of realism in 19th-century French literature, deserving instead to be read in view of an idealist philosophy. Henry Majewski's translation is as fine as his introduction is erudite and informative. He succeeds in maintaining Sand's style, imagery, and the effusion that characterizes the romantic vein of her work. While true to the French text, this rendering in English is also as elegant as the original.
We might consider it a kind of artistic transposition, the procedure Sand employs in her novel to translate colourful mosaics into evocative words, which recasts a long-forgotten 19th-century French masterpiece for the enjoyment of 21st-century readers of English. It is indeed a novel that can be enjoyed by a variety of readers, from non-specialists (such as the boy for whom it was written) to specialists in a variety of fields, including French literature, gender studies, Romanticism, and aesthetic theory.