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 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, 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.
He wrote 52 versions of one of the novel’s most famous episodes, the passage in which Emma is heady with the excitement of her new love affair with country aristocrat Rodolphe. She takes to sneaking out of her house at dawn and running across the fields to her lover’s bedroom. At first charmed at being awakened by this woman smelling of fields and dew, Rodolphe soon senses something overly-intense about Emma and warns her she is taking risks. Afraid of alienating him, she loses her insouciance. Early one unnerving morning, she meets the tax-collector who is lying in wait to shoot wild duck by the riverside.
Reading this passage’s successive versions is like digging through layers of the subconscious from the published text back to the various drafts and discarded segments. Internet visitors can click on a coloured strip (blue for early drafts, yellow for discarded, etc) to read each version, and can also compare a photograph of the hand-written version with its typed transcription. Readers are encouraged to get in touch if they spot mistakes.
Flaubert was fully aware that the writing process itself was fascinating. He promised his mistress Louise Colet that he would show her the Madame Bovary manuscript, and “you will understand the complicated mechanism that leads me to make a sentence.” He tended to think as he wrote, rather than plan ahead what he was going to write, says Professor Leclerc. Thus each time he rewrote a sentence, the thoughts took shape under his pen.
Flaubert’s favourite niece, Caroline, donated the manuscript of Madame Bovary to Rouen’s Municipal Library in 1916. There it remained until 2003, accessible only to scholars wearing white gloves to turn the pages. That was when the Library—working with Rouen University’s Flaubert Centre—won a subsidy from the Ministry of Culture in Paris to buy a camera that would allow them to digitise the novel. Leclerc then organised the massive transcription process.
He didn’t have a budget, and so together with retired school teacher Danielle Gerard he launched an appeal to schools and universities, and to a broader audience after an article appeared in the daily newspaper Libération. “You get used to Flaubert’s hand-writing after a while,” says teacher Nicole Sibires, who transcribed more pages than anyone else, “and the screen is very useful because you can look up close or from another angle. It’s very gratifying work because it’s like being in Flaubert’s mind.”
Transcribed by professionals as well as amateurs, safeguards were set up to minimise the risk of error. Texts were read through several times by experts like Sibires, and corrections are still being introduced to this day. Gerard jots down things she spots, and goes on line later to fix them. “At this stage, it’s mostly comas and accents,” she says.
Programmer Jean-Eudes Trouslard was to prove a key player—passionate about the links between literature and the internet, he had created a project for a site about philosopher Roland Barthes, which involved manuscripts and Barthes’ own voice. For Madame Bovary‘s interactive website, he created a special program which is already in use for a follow-up project: Rouen’s University and Library are busy transcribing the manuscript of Flaubert’s last unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, about two retired clerks who set out to record world culture. By this time, Flaubert’s handwriting was more nervous, harder to decipher and full of abbreviations, and the team will include only the best from the Bovary book. Most people consider Bouvard et Pécuchet a flawed masterpiece. It’s Yvan Leclerc’s favourite Flaubert. “It’s a very modern book, an anti-novel,” he says. “There’s no plot, no tension, just the ambitious attempt to write a work of fiction about our relationship to knowledge.”
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