Thanks to an unprecedented international collaboration between scholars and volunteers, we can now trace the development of Flaubert's masterpiece online, draft by draftby Brigid Grauman / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
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…