Learning from Master Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

Thanks to top notch blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski (Real Clear Arts) for finding a fascinating article about Flaubert in Prospect Magazine.

I needed this, especially today. To read about how arduously Flaubert reworked Madame Bovary (and one would assume, everything he produced) helped eliminate some of the stress and discomfort with a very long and very slow moving project of completing work for my show next month.

Efficiency just isn’t part of my approach to creativity, and it clearly wasn’t for Flaubert either. I should be bold and proud enough to claim my membership in the “Rework, and rework again” tribe. It’s a big club, to be sure.

Now if only that came with a union card that guaranteed the bearer the ability to produce something as brilliant as Madame Bovary

Here’s some of Dobrzynski’s overview of the original article in Prospect:

For all its drawbacks for writers, the Internet has its pluses, too. Easier research, for one. And here’s another example: Two new websites in France are putting on display, for everyone to see, just how difficult writing novels (in particular) really is and how it was done by a master. Prospect Magazine has the story, and here’s the lede:

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.

Flaubert’s manuscripts have been digitized, posted alongside the transcriptions at two websites: www.bovary.fr and flaubert.univ-rouen.fr/. It’s in French, of course, but anyone can gawk at the revisions. The Prospect article reveals plenty, too, such as:

* Flaubert wrote 52 versions of Madame Bovary’s most famous scene, wherein Emma sneaks out of her house at dawn and runs to her lover;

* He often produced 20 versions of the same page;

* He excised metaphors (“they attack me like fleas”, he said);

* He thought as he wrote, rather than plan what he would say first.

3 Comment

  1. Dear Deborah, thanks for the mention. I’d be pleased if you would add a link to Real Clear Arts on your blog. I’ll do the same with Slow Muse.

  2. Thanks Judith and Deborah,
    It is truly heartening to hear the amount of labour that went into Flaubert’s art. As a painter I often foolishly think I can plan the process: “I will take x days to finish this”. Each piece has its own speed of construction and completion, and the work, if you allow it time, will tell you what it needs.

    Thank goodness the great artists of our time had to go through the same thing. It takes great effort to make something seem effortless.

  3. Val, it is easy to say but harder to do, in my experience. I need constant reminding. Thanks for your comment.

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