Every draft of Madame Bovary online!

May 24, 2009

Posted by Nick Sarno


Via Prospect:

Flaubert, said Henry James, was “the novelist’s novelist.” And perhaps because he wanted to prove to his family of sceptical doctors that writing was hard work, or perhaps because he was incapable of throwing anything away, or maybe even because he was so in awe of the mystical powers of art, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) kept all his manuscript drafts.

A unique internet literary collaboration that began in Rouen, Flaubert’s Normandy birthplace, now lays bare the innermost secrets of his anguished creative process. The 4,561 pages he frantically wrote and rewrote to become his 400-or-so-page masterpiece, Madame Bovary, have been transcribed by 130 enthusiasts from 13 countries and put online.

Literary scholars have long known about this Eldorado of handwritten manuscripts, but were always daunted by its sheer size. The task of deciphering a single page of Flaubert’s handwriting, much of it furiously crossed out, with words scribbled in the margins and others fitted between lines, would take a single scholar three to ten hours, says Yvan Leclerc, Rouen University’s Flaubert specialist who is behind the project. With an unpaid team of school teachers, academics, doctors, social workers, an oil prospector and even a cleaning lady in France, the United States, Britain, Argentina, New Zealand and Thailand, the transcriptions were finished in two years and a half.

“It’s the first time such a volume of pages has been put on line,” says Leclerc. He cites a short story by Zola—“but Zola only kept his last draft”—and Tony Williams at Hull University’s transcription of a chapter from Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale. The undertaking could never have happened, he adds, without a thesis by one of his students that involved reordering Flaubert’s helter-skelter pages.

Flaubert sweated over his celebrated novel of provincial frustration, sex, religion and science, crafting it with obsessive fury. He started writing in 1851 and at last finished it some four and a half years later. It dominated his life above all else, and he worked at it at his country house by the Seine at the Rouenais village Croisset, and sometimes at his apartment in Paris. He perfected the impersonal style, which is why Madame Bovary is said to be the first modern novel. He wanted every sexual innuendo to hit home. He cared deeply about the sound of the words. Part of his technique was to shout out the sentences to make sure that his writing had the musicality of poetry.

After its serialised publication in La Revue de Paris in 1856, minus the notorious love-making sequence in the fiacre, Flaubert and his publishers were taken to court in January the next year for “outrage to public morals and religion.” Unlike D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover half a century later, where the scandal was the depiction of a love affair between different social classes, with Bovary it was the erotic language, descriptions and situations, the juxtaposition of religious and sexual imagery, the use of the banned word adultery. “He used much cruder language than in traditional novels,” says Leclerc.

Thanks in part to connections in high places, author and publisher were acquitted and the novel was published in two volumes, enjoying a succès de scandale. Flaubert was ambivalent about his success; he wanted his book to be admired for its artistry.

The websites (two sites in fact, http://www.bovary.fr and the more scholarly flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/) are fascinating for the insights they offer into the craft of fiction. Flaubert was a compulsive but felicitous rewriter, sometimes producing 20 versions of the same page. He condensed, cut transitions, removed metaphors (“they attack me like fleas”, he said), hunted down word repetition, and was weary of direct speech because he found it overly theatrical. He went on changing things until the final typesetter’s proof.

Read the rest here.


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