Victor Hugo, again, was one of the herculean artists, working, in Emerson’s phrase, “in a sad sincerity,” with the patience of an ant and the energy of a volcano. Of his Les Miserables—perhaps the greatest novel ever written, as it is, I suppose, easily the longest—he said, “it takes me nearly as long to publish a book as to write one”; and he was at work on Les Miserables, off and on, for nearly fifteen years. Of his writing Notre Dame (that other colossus of fiction) this quaint picture has been preserved. He had made vast historical preparations for it, but ever there seemed still more to make, till at length his publisher grew impatient, and under his pressure Hugo at last made a start—after this fashion:
He purchased a great grey woollen wrapper that covered him from head to foot, he locked up all his clothes lest he should be tempted to go out, and, carrying off his ink-bottle to his study, applied himself to his labour just as if he had been in prison. He never left the table except for food and sleep, and the sole recreation that he allowed himself was an hour’s chat after dinner with M. Pierre Leroux, or any other friend who might drop in, and to whom he would occasionally read over his day’s work.
Daudet, whose Tartarin bids fair to remain one of the world’s types, like Don Quixote or Mr. Micawber, for all his natural Provencal gift of improvisation and, indeed, from his self-recognized necessity of keeping it in check, was another strenuous artist. He wrote each manuscript three times over, he told his biographer, and would write it as many more if he could; and his son, in writing of him, has this truth to say of his, as of all living work:
The fact is that labour does not begin at the moment when the artist takes his pen. It begins in sustained reflection and in the thought which accumulates images and sifts them, garners and winnows them out, and compels life to keep control over imagination, and imagination to expand and enlarge life.
Zola is perhaps unduly depreciated nowadays, but certainly, if Carlyle’s “infinite capacity for taking pains” as a recipe for genius ever was put to the test, it was by the author of the Rougon-Macquart series. Talking of rewriting, Prosper Merimee, best known for Carmen, is said to have rewritten his Colomba no less than sixteen times; as our Anglo-Saxon Kipling, it used to be told, wrote his short stories seven times over.
But, of course, the classical example of the artist-fanatic in modern times was Gustave Flaubert. His agonies in quest of the mot propre, the one and only word, are proverbial, and are said literally to have broken down his nerves. Mr. Huneker has told of him that “he would annotate three hundred volumes for a page of facts.... In twenty pages he sometimes saved three or four from destruction,” and, in the course of twenty-six years’ polishing and pruning of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, he reduced his original manuscript of 540 pages down to 136, even reducing it still further after its first publication.