[I just realized, this is my 1000th post! How appropriate that it should be about Bouvard and Pecuchet!]
I read through most of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet again over the last few weeks. Flaubert didn’t finish the book, and the conclusion is simply an outline assembled from his notes. It is a very difficult book to get a grip on, unless you are well versed in the Flaubertian world view: This blogger, however, is on to something when she remarks that she read the entire thing with the childrens’ book, Frog and Toad in mind!
The ‘novel’ tells of two clerks, nobodies is how Flaubert referred to them in his original title for it, who take up a life of ease in the country after one of them comes into an inheritance. In fact, the life they adopt is what I plan for myself in retirement: reading, travelling, ‘intellectual’ hobbies, and so on. But this is Flaubert, remember.
B & P is Flaubert’s revenge on human culture, his ever-ticking time bomb of a black hole that sucks in everything that has been thought and said about anything, and makes it disappear with a ‘poof!’ He remarked in his letters that he hoped that after reading it, people “would be afraid to say anything,” because of course, anything they could say would be reflected in some imbecility or other in this book. At last, people might just shut up, forever!
The book is not about anything, other than the endless mental and recreational diversions of the two clerks. You could say it’s a book about nothing, more than one hundred years before Seinfeld hit on that theme as a platform for mass entertainment. Of course, Flaubert’s spirit, if it watches television, recognizes and accepts the inevitability of the recuperation of his work.
People comment on this book a lot, in rather grand ways. Christopher Hitchens reviewed a recent translation and got this off, my emphasis:
This novel was plainly intended to show its author’s deep contempt, however comedically expressed, for all grand schemes, most especially the Rousseauean ones, to improve the human lot. Such schemes founder because the human material is simply too base to be transmuted. Even Bouvard and Pécuchet receive a glimpse of this, if only through their own solipsism: “Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. Insignificant things saddened them: newspaper advertisements, a burgher’s profile, an inane comment overheard by chance. . . . They felt upon their shoulders the weight of the entire world.”
Earnest fellow that Hitchens is, it doesn’t occur to him that Flaubert is here talking about himself. As he said of his most famous character, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!“ Read his entertaining and outrageous letters, and that much is clear.
In the forward to my edition, Lionel Trilling has this to say:
The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century. Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself. The novel does nothing less than that: it rejects culture. The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding … that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.
Sometimes I get so sick of culture I could scream…but what’s the alternative? Here’s a passage with my favorite part in blue:
Pécuchet, without bestowing a thought on them, took up the argument:
“Excuse me, M. Jeufroy. The weight of the atmosphere, science demonstrates to us, is equal to that of a mass of water which would make a covering ten metres around the globe. Consequently, if all the air that had been condensed fell down in a liquid state, it would augment very little the mass of existing waters.”
The vestrymen opened their eyes wide, and listened.
The curé lost patience. “Will you deny that shells have been found on the mountains? What put them there, if not the Deluge? They are not accustomed, I believe, to grow out of the ground of themselves alone, like carrots!” And this joke having made the assembly laugh, he added, pressing his lips together: “Unless this be another discovery of science!”
Bouvard was pleased to reply by referring to the rising of mountains, the theory of Elie de Beaumont.
“Don’t know him,” returned the abbé.
Foureau hastened to explain: “He is from Caen. I have seen him at the Prefecture.”
“But if your Deluge,” Bouvard broke in again, “had sent shells drifting, they would be found broken on the surface, and not at depths of three hundred metres sometimes.”
The priest fell back on the truth of the Scriptures, the tradition of the human race, and the animals discovered in the ice in Siberia.
“That does not prove that man existed at the time they did.”
The earth, in Pécuchet’s view, was much older. “The delta of the Mississippi goes back to tens of thousands of years. The actual epoch is a hundred thousand, at least. The lists of Manetho——”
The Count de Faverges appeared on the scene. They were all silent at his approach.
“Go on, pray. What were you talking about?”
“These gentlemen are wrangling with me,” replied the abbé.
“About Holy Writ, M. le Comte.”
Bouvard immediately pleaded that they had a right, as geologists, to discuss religion.
“Take care,” said the count; “you know the phrase, my dear sir, ‘A little science takes us away from it, a great deal leads us back to it’?” And in a tone at the same time haughty and paternal: “Believe me, you will come back to it! you will come back to it!”
“Perhaps so. But what were we to think of a book in which it is pretended that the light was created before the sun? as if the sun were not the sole cause of light!”
“You forget the light which we call boreal,” said the ecclesiastic.
I love the way the local class system is limned with such economy: the Count approaches, and they all await his words. He lets fall a few clichés supportive of the status quo. The dialog of the deaf continues…