Many authors leave behind unfinished works when they die. Far fewer leave behind unfinished works that can be considered masterpieces. Gustave Flaubert’s last unfinished novel Bouvard and Pecuchet is without question his masterpiece, even in its unfinished state, towering above the more famous, but less enjoyable, Madame Bovary.
Bouvard and Pecuchet are two middle-aged copy clerks who meet on a bench in Paris and discover immediate affection and common interest and opinion. (“They were of the same opinion, though Bouvard was perhaps a bit more liberal.”) They become almost constant companions, and when Bouvard inherits money from his father, they buy property and move together to the country.
They start out tending to a garden; bolstered by the appearance of success they decide to take up farming: “With common sense and a little study, they couldn’t fail, no question about it.” Except there are many questions, too many, and fail they do, over and over again. The novel is a chronicle of failure, constant and hilarious failure. Bouvard and Pecuchet are epic heroes of failure, and through them Flaubert satirizes knowledge acquisition, the common wisdom of the times, all manner of people, and, really, the idea of any authority (many consider this an early work of postmodern literature). To say Bouvard and Pecuchet fail, consistently, is not to say they are idiots (as many describe them); rather, they are naive. Their attempts at critical thinking get mired in contradiction and skepticism (“Having stopped caring about dates, they moved on to disdaining facts.”). The two copy clerks try to better themselves, to learn, and to understand (often with courage, as when they speak out against religion in front of the local count and priest), but they fall prey to bad luck and a lot of carelessness.
From gardening and farming, the two friends turn to a long string of disciplines, chemistry, medicine (“To the great shock of the priest, they adopted the recent fashion of introducing thermometers into backsides.”), geology, archaeology, history, biography, literature, religion, mysticism, and education, as well as participating in political and romantic endeavors. In effort they find failure, and with each failure they are driven to something new: perhaps their experiments in making liquor failed because they didn’t know enough chemistry! One of the books structural comedies is that, after having exhausted numerous fields of knowledge, in chapter ten, they turn to education. (One wonders if that old adage, “those who can’t do, teach” was current in Flaubert’s time.)
The book is organized episodically, wherein each chapter narrates Bouvard and Pecuchet’s efforts in two or three of the areas. They read books, experiment, consult “experts,” and go out on expeditions. Inevitably their experiments either are outrageous failures or appear to be successful for all the wrong reasons. Their eccentricity is noticed by the townsfolk, particularly the “notables” (count, doctor, priest, innkeeper, mayor) who are often personally involved with the investigations. Still, much of the town looks on them unfavorably as non-conformists.
Flaubert claimed that he read fifteen hundred books while researching Bouvard and Pecuchet. As his protagonists read, so did their author. The book is suffused with this dilettantish level of knowledge in a broad range of topics and Flaubert informally cites authors and books as Bouvard and Pecuchet discuss ideas or argue with themselves or others. Through all this, Flaubert is determined to point out the inconsistencies and contradictions of knowledge and scholarship. A typical passage:
And they broached the origin of ideas. According to Locke there are two kinds: sensation and reflection. Condillac, for his part, reduces it all to sensation.
The type of knowledge and research that Flaubert exhibits would be shockingly easy to obtain today with the internet and online reference sources, but for the time, the casual way he throws about names, concepts, and “facts” is exceedingly impressive. What’s even more impressive is how timeless much of the themes of the book are. As steeped as they are in the knowledge of their time, Bouvard and Pecuchet could just a easily be two modern friends Googling up a storm.
In another author’s hands, this material could dry out fast, but the attitude taken by Flaubert, contrasted with the attitude of his protagonists, creates an enjoyable friction of comedy. Flaubert’s style is rather plain, often understated. At times, however, he moves into a different register, such as when Bouvard and Pecuchet are looking at the stars, contemplating the creation and destruction of the world:
The harvest had just ended, and haystacks in the middle of the fields lifted their black bulk against the soft blue of night. The farms were still. Not even a cricket was to be heard. The entire countryside was asleep. They digested while sniffing the breeze, which refreshed their cheeks. Far above, the sky was covered with stars; some shone in groups, others in a line, or else alone at distant intervals. An area of luminous dust forked above their heads, stretching from north to south. Between these lights were vast empty spaces, and the firmament seemed a sea of azure, with archipelagos and islets . . . [They discuss the sun; Pecuchet says that experts believe the sun is moving towards a constellation] . . . This upset Bouvard’s way of thinking, and after a moment’s reflection: “Science is based on data supplied by a small corpus of knowledge. Perhaps it doesn’t apply to all the rest that we don’t know about, which is much more vast, and which we can never understand.”
Hardly the thoughts of an idiot.
The novel is, as mentioned above, unfinished. What exists are nine complete chapters, a tenth incomplete chapter, notes, and an earlier work entitled the “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.” According to Flaubert’s notes the first ten chapters were to be only half of the book, the second half being a collection of pastiches, quotations, and “howlers” satirizing all manner of written style, as well as the Dictionary.
The Dictionary itself is a hilarious collection of words and accompanying “definitions,” which turn out to satirize what one might consider the most typical of bourgeois. As with the rest of the book, although many of the specifics are set entirely in the times, the satire is often contemporary and biting.
CELEBRITY: Concern yourself with the slightest detail of celebrities’ private lives, then denigrate them. . . .
DEICIDE: Be outraged by, even though the crime is pretty rare. . . .
GRAMMAR: Teach it to children from their earliest years as being something clear and easy.
This edition includes an introductory essay by translator Mark Polizzotti, which provides background to the book and quotes from Flaubert’s correspondence on his work. It also analyzes of the book, including this section which works as a beautifully summary:
At its core Bouvard and Pecuchet is a classic tale of human aspiration: the age-old desire to be more than oneself, to reach fulfillment, to find happiness. Products of a time and culture that believed increasingly in the beneficence of scientific progress and the imperatives of conformity, Flaubert’s protagonists struggle to come to terms with the onslaught of new knowledge confronting them, and with the societal attitudes that accompany it, by living out a veritable encyclopedia of modern pursuits.
I have previously read the translation by A.J. Krailsheimer (currently available as a Penguin Classic); comparing passages from the two, Polizzotti’s translation is much more readable, less stilted, and a bit more concise in syntax. With the excellent introduction by Polizzotti and a preface by Raymond Queneau, as well as additional materials related to the unfinished portions of the novel, this is the edition to read, all packaged in a simple and attractive design.
Bouvard and Pecuchet is a novel I have returned to a number of times, and with each reading I find something more to enjoy in it. If you don’t want to take my word on it, I direct you to the people who first recommended it to me: Italo Calvino (see “Multiplicity” in Six Memos for a Next Millennium), Jorge Luis Borges (see “A Defense of Bouvard and Pecuchet” in the Selected Non-Fictions), and Raymond Queneau (the preface included in this volume). With recommendations like that, how can you not want to give it a try? And with a nice new translation now is the perfect time.
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