Thursday, March 13, 2008

curiouser and curiouser

Thanks to Jenny Davidson's Light Reading, I have just read Julian Barnes' review of the latest volume Flaubert's correspondence in the TLS, in which Barnes comments:

Yet posterity is not so easily outfaced. Letters cannot always be called back and destroyed; the content and purpose of gaps in a correspondence can often be intuited; while the mere printing side by side of virtually every known letter – something Flaubert can scarcely have envisaged – will point up inconsistencies, contradictions and all the small hypocrisies of polite behaviour. When Flaubert excuses himself in May 1879 for not having visited the society beauty Jeanne de Loynes because he was “only in Paris for a few hours”, an editor comes along 130 years later to point out that he was actually in town for nearly three days. When he tell Edma Roger des Genettes in March of the same year that he has just finished reading the whole of Spinoza for the third time, Jean Bruneau (whose life’s work the Correspondance was) knows enough to explain that this boast can only apply to the Ethics, since Flaubert did not discover the Tractatus until 1870. As for his sex life: the novelist is often caught lying to women friends about where he is going, while asking male friends to cover for him, and later reporting back to them what he had got up to.
I recently wrote to Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, proposing a piece on writers' laptops as collectors' items. Barnes' piece ends with the inventory made of Flaubert's house at the time of his death; while most of the contents were valued, the manuscripts were not, since it was deemed impossible to assign them a monetary value. The laptop of a modern Flaubert would, presumably, have none of the correspondence which makes F's collected letters compulsive reading, but would undoubtedly contain versions of books, sketches, fragments. The laptop of someone less secretive than Flaubert would also have on its hard drive correspondence with some or all of the following: friends, family, lovers, business associates, editors, admirers, proteges (Flaubert was tireless in his championing of Maupassant, assiduous in his correspondence with Turgenev). If these little workhorses entered the world of the art market, the world of those who are interested in art but also have an eye to speculation, this would in fact transform the world of literature as we know it - it would transform the financial prospects of the sort of writer who, like Joyce, publishes a book destined to transform what is possible in an initial print run of 1000 copies.

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