Monday, February 1, 2016

They procured several books and settled on a system - Flaubert attacks knowledge in a book packed with everything he knows

Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished 1882 conceptual novel, is what I have here.

The two title characters are Paris clerks who become friends, come into some money, and retire to the Normandy country side to pursue – well, what exactly?  They need something to do, so they do everything.

Bouvard and Pecuchet are good comic characters, and their adventures as city fools in the country – ruining their farm, offending their neighbors – have enough of the manner of a story to make Bouvard and Pecuchet something of a novel.

The bulk of each chapter, however, is more akin to a list.

“Six months later they had become archaeologists, and their home looked like a museum” (first line of Chapter 4, p. 87).  A couple of pages describe the contents of the museum in Flaubertish detail.  “The frame of the mirror was decorated with a black velvet sombrero, and an enormous clog, full of leaves, held the remains of a bird’s nest” (87), etc.  Then comes the activity.  B & P visit churches, fortresses, manors; they buy or dig up all sorts of artifacts; they investigate lots of tedious questions.  “No effort or sacrifice was too great” (90).  Faced with difficulties, some caused by their own folly, their enthusiasm for architecture and history wanes and is replaced by – let me move to the next chapter – a passion for literature.  “First they read Walter Scott” (first line of Ch. 5, 115).

Repeat.  Chapter 3 was about science.  Chapter 6 is about politics – 1848 intrudes.  Chapter 7, love.  Chapter 8, medicine.  Exercise, first, actually.  “Pleased with their regimen, they decided to improve their constitutions with gymnastics” (first line of Ch. 8, 170).  The failure of exercise leads to medicine, the failure of medicine leads to philosophy, the failure of philosophy leads to religion, the failure of religion leads to education.  “They procured several books about education and settled on a system” (first line of Ch. 10, 245).

The novel is as repetitive as it sounds, in places close to mechanical.  B & P clumsily grind through a field, preceded by the author who read the same books, and more, in order to extract little chunks of knowledge with which to pelt his characters.  One field after another, to exhaustion.  I had not realized that Flaubert had written an Omnibook, but here it is.

Flaubert is satirizing amateurism, which is painful enough, but more broadly he is satirizing the pursuit of knowledge, the value of knowledge, which is a rough message.  What drives B & P crazy is uncertainty.  Even the experts don’t agree!  They can’t even follow Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their garden, since no two sources agree on fertilizing techniques.

Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. (205)

Everything ends wells at least.  The novel is unfinished, but there is an outline up to the end.

The friendship of the two characters is a treat, and there are the usual scattering of fine Flaubertian lines – “Dusk was falling; crows dropped into the furrows”  (25) is a particular favorite, the second verb making the translator do some work.

But the novel is conceptually pretty pure, even for Flaubert.

Page numbers and translations are from Mark Polizzotti’s outstanding recent version of the novel.


  1. Forgive me for an unrelated comment here, but I did enjoy A Simple Heart. I've been thinking about it since I finished it a week or so ago. It is simple, but those are often the best kind of books. He created an indelible character for me, a sweetness not often found, and yet I was so sad about her only "friend" being a stuffed parrot. This thought might be too sentimental for you,
    I just wanted to share and thank you for the suggestion.

    Also, I saw the film of Madam Bovary, and while it strayed far (in my opinion) from the novel, the scenery was quite breathtaking.

  2. It is related. Flaubert wrote "A Simple Heart" right in the middle of the composition of the dry, conceptual Bouvard and Pecuchet! Quite a feat. The novel was driving him crazy, so he turned to something quite different - thank goodness!

    It is a story of great beauty and true sentiment, although I do not believe that it is particularly simple.

    1. Simple in story, to me, not in the complexity of emotion, or one's life.

    2. What was it that made you like it so very much? Madam Bovary is still my favorite.

    3. Why I liked it? Oh, the usual reasons - it's an unusually well-made artwork. Well-written, well-imagined, blah blah blah. It gives its readers a lot to do, if they want.

      But it also has one of the greatest pathos-inducing central characters, which is why I believed you would like it.

    4. Yes, I seem to connect most fully to characters first, story next.

    5. Flaubert is a funny case. He could create living characters whenever he wanted - but he often did not want to do it.

  3. I have never quite known how to take this novel. It is fascinating - no doubt about that:there is nothing else remotely like it. But is Flaubert's aim simply to satirise all human activity? If so - if Flaubert really believes that all human activity is stupid and pointless - then why does he exempt his own writing from this? Or perhaps he didn't: perhaps that's the final irony - that even the immense work and skill he put into his writing is also stupid and pointless. I really don't know.

  4. I don't think the satire is of activity so much as knowledge, of systems. Of knowledge as a source of meaning. But then it is an easy step, a tiny step, for everything to be meaningless.

  5. But doesn't the knowledge they acquire lead to activity? They do try to create a garden; they try to adopt and educate children; and so on. Not in all cases, admittedly, but at least in some cases, knowledge that is imperfect (and knowledge can only be imperfect) invariably leads to action that is stupid. Possibly i am reading too much into this.

  6. Right, they farm but they're not farmers. The actual farmers in the novel do all right with their farming, the actual priest functions as a priest, and so on.

    The big flaw in B&P's approach is that they are so shaken by the imperfection of knowledge. The vocational farmer somehow embraces, reconciles, or ignores the imperfections.

    At the end of the book, B & P discover, or re-discover, their vocations, and therefore an activity in which they find true meaning. It is a bleak, bleak joke, that ending.

  7. Apropos of detours, I ask you, "Have you read _Flaubert's Parrot_ by Julian Barnes?" It is a wonderful supplement to reading Flaubert. Metafictional Fun!

  8. No, I have not. I have the book out, on an accessible shelf, so it might get read fairly soon.

    1. I read it a decade or so ago immediately after reading several things by Flaubert, and I really like it. Enjoy!

    2. I read Flaubert's Parrot years and years ago without having read any Flaubert. I enjoyed the Barnes book very much: it made Flaubert sound great. In short order I obtained the Penguin versions of all Flaubert's books. They went on my shelves and are still sitting there, unread.

  9. It sounds as boring as the rest of Flaubert's work.

  10. More boring, or even more boring, except with more things falling on people's heads. And fewer lion crucifixions.

    Bill, that's a good story. A happy ending for all involved. Maybe try "A Simple Heart" someday just to meet the parrot - although that would spoil the story.

    1. Don’t B & P compile a “Dictionary of Conventional Wisdom” or something of the sort? I seem to remember that from Barnes, and it made B et P seem attractive. As I recall Barnes made it sound like a kind of clueless Devil’s Dictionary.

  11. Yes, that's right. It's included in most Bouvard and Pecuchet editions, including this one. Actually, Flaubert assembled it much earlier, in the 1850s, then attributes it to these fictional characters decades later!

    It is about half Devil's Dictionary and half cliches and dead phrases. Or maybe 1/3 and 2/3. It is not as much of a book of jokes as Bierce's. Many of the cliches are dropped into the novel when appropriate.

  12. Interesting point, the folly of amateurism according to Flaubert. Like Charles Bovary performing surgery on the kid with a clubfoot.

    Perhaps a certain Dictionary of Received Ideas may shed some light on this matter.
    AMBITION: Always preceded by folly when it is not
    LIBRARY: One must always have one at one's city house. Specially if one lives in the countryside.
    EMAIL: A lost secret.
    WELL WRITTEN: Words used by lowlifes to describe the pulp fiction they like.
    ERUDITION: To be despised as the hallmark of a narrow mind.
    LITERATURE: The job of loafers.
    BOOK: No matter which one, always too boring.
    READER: Elegant way to say booby; dreamer.
    SAGE: To become wise all you need is good memory and hard work.

  13. Oh yes. So true. I am compiling one just for book reviewers.

    LYRICAL: Contains adjectives.
    LUMINOUS: Also adverbs.
    THE READER: Some other dummy, easy for the author to manipulate; certainly not me.
    SLIM: Books are not slim, but volumes are.

  14. I notice with sadness that you didn't fall into the booby-trap. As you already know, that was Flaubert's definition of Poete, not of Lecteur (mon semblable, mon frere): synonyme noble de nigaud; reveur.

    Also, on second thought, maybe the French word, email had a different meaning during Flaubert's time than the English word email has today.

  15. "As you already know," very funny.

    It is a relief that a fair number of Flaubert's clichés have died and been replaced by new ones.