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.