Four moments from A Must-Read by Brian Simpson in Johns Hopkins Magazine:
1. “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
2. 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.
3. 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.”
4. 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.”