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  The Birth of a Classic

The novel on your bedside table did not spring fully formed from the head of its maker. It was mulled over, massaged, fleshed out, scratched through, revised, set aside, and revised some more.
For Team Flaubert, the be-all is not the end-all.

By Brian Simpson
Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

"When I'm finished with my novel . . . I'll bring you my complete manuscript. . . . You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence."
— Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet

The copyist had an elegant hand. The writing appears cursive yet the letters are not linked; each letter stands distinct and beautifully shaped. Every m resembles a perfect little wave. Slender loops top each l. The backbone of the capital P curves into a delicious arc. The script and the size of the page (roughly 10 by 15 inches) combine to suggest something official: perhaps a constitution or a treaty between nations. Something complete. Something final.

Yet it wasn't.

As Gustave Flaubert studied the first page of the final, ready-to-be-published draft of Madame Bovary in March 1856, he knew it must change. The plot, though ordinary, was fixed. It hadn't varied from his first plan for the book: Emma, wife of Charles Bovary, has affairs with a rakish bon vivant named Rodolphe and a sensitive younger man, Léon — bringing disaster upon herself. What Flaubert really cared about was the language. It had to be beautiful, rhythmic, precise. He'd spent the last five years writing and rewriting the book to accomplish that goal. He frequently wrote 12 hours a day, beginning in the late afternoon and continuing through the night. He recited the words aloud, bellowing in a full-throated roar. He once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing. Flaubert rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, and many a dozen times. In an 1855 letter to Louise Colet, he confided, "Last week I spent five days writing one page." At the end of such weeks, he had finished only 500 words. But they were 500 perfect words.

Or almost perfect. Flaubert was 34 years old and, although he'd thought of himself as a writer and artist since he was a child, he had never published anything. Most of his friends were in Paris with promising careers in the arts or business. Flaubert still lived with his mother in the family home in Croisset, near Rouen (though he'd recently taken rooms in Paris). The family's comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, as well as his nervous nature and epilepsy, had eliminated the prospect of a legal career or other work. He was a bit of a dandy, a spendthrift, and a writer needing to prove he was the Artist he claimed to be. So when he perused the first page of the manuscript, he had reason to be done with it, to rush it to his friend Maxime Du Camp, who served on the editorial board of La Revue de Paris, the influential literary journal that would serially publish Madame Bovary.

Instead, he did an amazing thing. At the last minute, he changed the book's most important line: the first one. Flaubert's pen scratched decisively through the novel's opening line: Une heure et demie venaient de sonner a l'horloge. . . .

The sentence had pegged the hour when a classroom was interrupted by the arrival of an embarrassed new student (the young Charles Bovary). In the left margin, in his confident script, Gustave Flaubert wrote a new first line: Nous étions à l'étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois. . . . ("We were in the preparation room when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy in ordinary day clothes. . . .")

To the casual reader leafing through the book today, the sentence is a natural enough start. But the typeset words printed on neatly trimmed, acid-free pages mask Flaubert's seismic change. For scholars who know Flaubert's manuscripts, "Nous étions à l'étude" is astonishing. The appearance of "We" is a revelation. It alters everything that follows.

"There have been kilometers of commentaries written on the Nous change," says Jacques Neefs, a French literary scholar and Johns Hopkins Distinguished Visiting Professor. "It's really a very important change at the last moment. It's obvious that he found something very important to change the whole perspective of the book." Neefs sheds his normally calm demeanor as he passionately expounds on the meaning of Flaubert's sudden shift to the first-person plural. "The book was written in a kind of objectivity, and, at the last minute, he changed the point of view of the camera. He changed it to say, It's your story and my story. . . . It's trying to reappropriate the [book] to the contemporary world. It's our world. That story belongs to us, and we belong to it. It's not another world. It's our world. That story is our story."

An apostle of the French literary criticism movement known as la critique génétique, Neefs is also the leader of l'Équipe Flaubert (Team Flaubert) at a Parisian research institute. Neefs finds that authors' manuscripts offer crucial insights into the world's great literary works. The drafts tell the story of the story, illuminating how literary masterpieces come to be made.

For Jacques Neefs, the vision is in the revisions.

Deep in the Latin Quarter, the seat of Parisian higher education since the Middle Ages, a tiny park occupies a triangular median. Fronting the park are a bookstore, a locksmith, a TV/stereo shop, an Internet café, and a bland, 1960s-era office building. At 4, rue Lhomond sits the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes, ITEM. (Its French pronunciation sounds vaguely like "eat 'em" — an apt description of what they do to manuscripts here.) In this uninspiring building on a street named for a legendary French grammarian, researchers delve into the avant-textes — the notes, plans, and manuscript drafts of a book. The literary sleuths track their author's experiments, evolving ideas, additions, and deletions to discover how literature's most memorable words came together.

A research laboratory of the French government's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the prestigious &Eacuate;cole Normale Supérieure, ITEM houses équipes devoted to Flaubert, Zola, Joyce, Proust, Valéry, Sartre, and Nietzsche. The door to the Flaubert team office is marked by a Xerox of the writer in his plump, later years: balding, serious, thick side-burned, and walrus-mustachioed. Inside are a desk, a white Formica table, a blue iMac and a black Dell computer, and three walls lined with books and binders. Green binders hold photocopies of Flaubert's manuscripts. (Most of the originals are in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Rouen's municipal library.)

It's a warm afternoon in late May. Neefs, 59, bounds into the office of Team Flaubert. He's running late; the drive from his Parisian home was slowed by bad traffic. Neefs has thick gray hair, a round face, tranquil blue eyes, and smudged glasses. He lives 19th-century literature; when he refers to an event in '75, it's understood that he means 1875.

Neefs sits down at the Flaubert lab's table, happy to talk about la critique génétique — genetic criticism. ("Genetic" is meant to emphasize a text's birth, or genesis.) He offers a simple introduction to the complex field: "We study the drafts of writers from the first plan to the last writing."

Neefs has spent the last three decades mining the original manuscripts of Flaubert, Georges Perec, and other authors for insights into the creative process. His goal has been to understand better the different methods authors use to create texts. He has written four books and edited 18 more. Along the way, Neefs has established himself as one of the world's leading scholars of Flaubert, Perec, Balzac, Stendhal, and genetic criticism. Since 1996, he has spent each spring semester at Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences teaching in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. He gives seminars in French literature, poetry, 19th-century novels, and genetic criticism, among other topics, and advises doctoral students. When he is in Paris, he also guides Hopkins students in France for a year of study. Attracting a French academic of Neefs' renown has proved to be quite a coup, says Stephen G. Nichols, chair of Romance Languages and Literatures. "I knew I couldn't get him to leave Paris and [University of] Paris VIII. But if I had him for a semester every year here, and he was willing to see students over there, I just thought it was a win-win situation," says Nichols.

Flaubert scholar Cecile Matthey, who studied with Neefs before she earned her PhD in 2000, appreciates his pedagogical style. "He has this way of talking to make you feel you own this knowledge, that you own the book and text as well as he does, which is, of course, not the case," says Matthey, now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado. "You feel very secure to speak in class, to engage the matter. You're just saying some stupid remark and he's very encouraging and he leads you to some wonderful places."

For Neefs, the drafts tell the story of the story.
Photo by Brian Simpson
The novel you purchase at a store is not the be-all, end-all. It evolves — with all the Darwinian emphasis on transformation and successful adaptation. The book arises from an idea and then becomes text that is mulled over, populated, fleshed out, massaged, scratched through, dismantled, reordered, revised, set aside, doodled on, sweated through (and sometimes detested), and revised some more. Like all serious human endeavors, writing a book is a messy struggle fraught with happenstance, frontloaded with difficulties, and, one hopes, blessed with luck.

"If you work with something just published in the print edition, you assume that it is an object cut into stone," says Nichols. "When you work with manuscripts, you discover how fragile literary works are. They depend on a number of accidents, fortuitous circumstances that affect the outcome." A passage in the text may change according to the writer's mood, who he ran into that day, what scrap of news caught his eye in the morning paper, what aches and pains nagged him as he wrote.

Charting the "subconscious moves and maneuvers in play in the author's mind" (in Nichols' phrase) is key to genetic criticism. The avant-textes offer the clues to the author's progression of thought and experiment. Yet few manuscript drafts from before the 18th century exist. Considered of little worth, drafts were routinely discarded or destroyed. But slowly attitudes changed. As legendary English critic and essayist Samuel Johnson noted in 1779, "It is pleasant to see great works in their seminal state, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence; nor could there be any more delightful entertainment than to trace their gradual growth and expansion, and to observe how they are sometimes suddenly advanced by accidental hints, and sometimes slowly improved by steady meditation." By the 19th and 20th centuries, the process of artistic creation had become more valued, and more authors began holding onto their drafts.

Scholars eventually saw that underlying levels of invention held the promise of revealing the final version in a new light. Having multiple versions of a manuscript in front of you necessarily changes your relation to "the book." "We always look at the final product, the born child. But it is always moving, it's taking shape constantly under your eyes. It's ceaselessly coming to life," says Hopkins PhD student Kristin Cook-Gailloud.

"You see all these beautiful sentences that have been erased from the final manuscript. Why should we not consider these? They stretch the notion of art," she continues. "Art is not just the final product. It's not just the book you buy on the shelf. When you have the manuscripts, you are tempted to consider them as an extension of the book you bought."

La critique génétique arose in the 1970s from the theoretical foundations of structuralism and post-structuralism. While structuralism focused on the various elements of a text and their relation to its fundamental objective, la critique génétique investigates the connections between the developmental stages of a piece of literature.

Neefs arrived in Paris in 1966, much like Flaubert had — as a young man from the provinces. He came to the country's &Eacuate;cole Normale Supérieure planning to study ancient Greek but changed his focus to the 19th-century novel. "I was immediately interested in Flaubert because I think it is great art," he says. He never looked back.

It was fortuitous timing for the young scholar. Not long after his arrival in Paris, the French scholar Louis Hay helped the Bibliothèque Nationale acquire the manuscripts of poet Heinrich Heine. With the support of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Hay gathered a core group of scholars to study the Heine manuscripts and, later, others. This group would evolve into ITEM and launch the genetic criticism movement. As a graduate student, Neefs studied under Raymonde Debray Genette, one of the movement's original members.

Neefs quickly discovered that genetic criticism requires living with the manuscripts and taking a front-row seat from which to watch an author think. Genetic critics require not only access to original manuscripts (in archives) or microfilms and photocopies (many of which are at ITEM) but also the patience and skill to decipher mountains of antique handwriting, private jottings, and cross-outs. The genetic researchers create transcripts — their own electronic versions of a manuscript that not only include the text of each draft but reveal what words were marked through, the position on the page of sketches, marginal notes, and so on. "I absolutely am following what [the genetic critics] are doing," says Matthey. "It's a very inspiring area. There's no way I could keep being a Flaubertian without knowing what's going on [in genetic studies of Flaubert]."

While still a PhD student at Hopkins, Matthey came to appreciate the power of la critique génétique when she learned how another giant of French literature, Marcel Proust, struggled to find the right way to begin À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). The opening line is: Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. ("For a long time I used to go to bed early.") "The process is fascinating. It took him forever to find this sentence. When you see the manuscripts and how he came to that — it's very moving to see that sentence coming from very deep writing," says Matthey. "The birth of this sentence is a huge event. It didn't come out of his brain just like that, as a magical event."

Less than a year into writing 'Madame Bovary,' Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, "What a bitch of a thing prose is! It is never finished; there is always something to be done over." Every author has his or her own way of preparing to write a book. Proust didn't mess with outlines; he just wrote and rewrote. Joyce's notebooks reveal a different approach; he would jot down a sentence from Hamlet and then 10 years later, it would appear in his work. Before embarking on a novel, both Zola and Flaubert prepared thoroughly. In Zola's notebooks, he meditates on how a story should unfold. "It's very interesting because he talks with himself," says Danielle Coussot, a colleague of Neefs' who works with l'&Eacuate;quipe Zola. "He says, 'This character should be doing that, but I doubt he could do that. No, he's not good enough to do that.' Or: 'She'll be blonde, no a redhead.' Or: 'She'll kill the man. No, the man will kill her!'" Coussot, who has studied Zola for more than 30 years, often finds herself amused by his interior dialogues. "When I read that, I think of children playing and saying, 'You be a doctor and I'll do this.'"

Flaubert is more relentless, more methodical in his approach. With Madame Bovary, he begins on July 23, 1851, with a two-page scenario, sketching out a dozen or so important points in the novel's plot, including doltish Charles Bovary's early life, his unhappy marriage to his first wife and her death, his marriage to Emma, her growing disenchantment and affairs, and her suicide. "He thinks about the story more and more intensely with more and more details before starting to write," says Neefs. On September 19, 1851, Flaubert starts his first draft. The writing and rewriting will last until the spring of '56 (as Neefs would say), when he finally turns it over to the copyist.

Earlier in his career, before he had published anything, Flaubert wrote more quickly with less revision and less satisfaction. "With Madame Bovary, he started erasing, repeatedly changing things before going to the strongest thing," says Neefs. Most passages followed an accordion process, growing in the early drafts and then slowly contracting as Flaubert trimmed his text and worried over each sentence's nuance and rhythm. Less than a year into the writing, he wrote to Louise Colet, "What a bitch of a thing prose is! It is never finished; there is always something to be done over. However, I think it can be given the consistency of verse. A good prose sentence should be like a good line of poetry — unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous."

La critique génétique, with its rigorous study of the manuscripts, reveals the richness, the writerly word-by-word decisions that Flaubert made every day between 1851 and 1856. The scene in which Emma first makes love with Rodolphe provides a vivid example of how the text evolves. In his first scenario for the book, Flaubert refers to the scene as la baisade, the crudest possible sexual term. Slowly in his scenarios, he makes short notes that fill in the scene. He describes the moments after the tryst this way: "Nature again, buzzing in the ears of Emma." As he writes and rewrites the scene, it grows into a passage of great beauty and tenderness, even in the English translation:

"The cloth of her habit caught upon the velvet of his coat. She threw back her head, and her white throat fluttered in a sigh. . . . Here and there among the leaves and on the ground, little patches of light flickered, as though hummingbirds in flight had shed their feathers. All around was silence. . . . She could feel her heart begin to beat again, and the blood surging through her veins like a river of milk."

Neefs savors the hard-won artistry of Flaubert's prose. "It is as if he is trying several options for each sentence. He always writes to connect the precise rhythm, sound, and meaning to a kind of vision, to adapt to his vision," says Neefs. "Each sentence, each paragraph . . . it's really composed like a painting. Each sentence has to be a touch . . . like a brushstroke in a painting."
Unlike many schools of criticism that lead literary critics into writing books dense with economics or psychoanalysis, genetic criticism is firmly grounded in the tactile. When trying to make sense of a pile of drafts, which often are not dated or numbered, researchers like Neefs depend upon their knowledge of the author, their intuition, and other experts at ITEM. Sometimes it's easy: Notes in the margin give a clear indication of the order in which the drafts were written. When the genetic challenges are more difficult, Neefs and colleagues turn to Claire Bustarret, who has made a career out of knowing paper like other French people know wine: She can tell a 1850 Bordeaux from an 1860 Lyonnais. Examining the texture, the feel, the fibers, whether it was hand- or machine-made, all can provide vital clues about when an undated manuscript was created or where it was written (which can be cross-referenced to the author's travels and thus reveal the date of the text's genesis).

Working with another paper expert, Bustarret overturned decades of Stendhal scholarship when she found that what was always assumed to be the first draft of the novel Lamiel was actually a second draft. After studying the papers, Bustarret and her fellow expert concluded that the messy version with numerous strike-outs was the second draft written in Stendhal's own hand and that Stendhal had dictated the cleaner first draft to an assistant while in Italy. The tip-off in the literary case: the Italian paper. Neefs relied on paper analysis and close study of handwriting (which changes over a person's lifetime) to classify Flaubert's 1849, 1856, and 1881 manuscripts of La Tentation de Saint Antoine.

ITEM not only relies on such traditional methods but is also employing computers to meet the special challenges of genetic criticism. "Le problème génétique is the masses of pages. It's huge," says computer engineer Aurele Crasson. For 100 final pages of a Flaubert manuscript, there may be 1,000 pages of drafts lacking dates or other indications of order. Add to that the layers of each page: the sometimes atrocious handwriting, the scratch-outs, the marginalia, the private symbols and drawings that some writers develop as shorthand. A heavily rewritten page by Flaubert resembles less a page of writing than a piece of modern art — densely inked scratchings with bits of paper showing through. Tracking the evolution of a lengthy novel using a pile of such manuscripts can be dizzyingly complex. Crasson is developing hypertext software that can enable the researchers to review digitized manuscripts (or transcribed versions of each draft page) and click through the revisions of a given passage.

Until technology provides better options, Neefs has only his own three decades of experience with Flaubert manuscripts and the assistance of Flaubert team members Anne Herschberg Pierrot and Claude Mouchard as he works on his latest project, a critical edition of Flaubert's unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. A satiric send-up of French bourgeois intellectual pretensions, the book follows two office workers on their ultimately disappointing quest for knowledge. Flaubert set a difficult mission for himself in Bouvard et Pécuchet: He wanted to make a book that contained both comic and artistic prose. Reading more than 2,500 books in preparation (part of what Neefs calls Flaubert's "crazy erudition"), the author mixed ideas on art, medicine, agriculture, and philosophy with common vernacular to obtain a kind of ironic beauty, says Neefs. Flaubert died in 1880 while still reworking Bouvard et Pécuchet, writing and revising to the end. "The drafts are incredible," says Neefs with awe. "They're a massive forest of writing." The critical edition of Bouvard et Pécuchet will include the last version of the text as well as commentaries on the "aesthetical and ironical treatment" of the book's encyclopedic knowledge and selected excerpts from Flaubert's notes for the book. Neefs expects to publish the edition in 2007.

More than a century after they were written, the manuscripts of great authors still have stories to tell, secrets of creation waiting to be uncovered. Even Madame Bovary, read so many times, so much a part of Western culture, still offers new lessons to be learned.

That last draft, for example, written in the copyist's perfect script, yields a final, sweet irony: It took Gustave Flaubert five years, thousands of handwritten pages, hundreds of solitary nights roaring his prose aloud, and countless words to arrive at his book's first sentence.

Brian Simpson, A&S '97 (MA), is editor of Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine.

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