The Black Hole of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

December 20, 2012

B and P

[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 what?”
“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…


Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.


Lost Illusions

March 9, 2009

lucien_chardon

I started to read Balzac’s Les Illusions Perdues in college, dropped it, and finished it a few years later.  I found it dull.  I guess I had some illusions of my own.  I have just finished reading it again, and I think it’s one of the greatest novels I know.  (Franco Moretti regards it as the greatest novel.)  Reading it is like being dropped into the heavy molten magma of life, as the editor of my Modern Library edition refers to it.  Or was it lava?

This long story has three parts and turns on the adventures of Lucien Chardon, a vain but talented provincial young man, our poet,  who has the singular luck of being gifted with the brilliant good looks of Apollo.  He and his friend, David Sechard, dream of success:  he as a poet lionized in Paris; David as an inventor rich on the basis of a new paper manufacturing process.   Lucien makes his way to Paris as the would-be lover of the local aristocratic belle,  but she dumps him when the dazzling city shows him up as something of a provincial clod.  He has much to learn.

Lucien falls in with some serious intellectual types, pledged to poverty and truth, but he quickly moves on to richer pastures, despite a few moral qualms.  He rises like a rocket in the cut throat world of journalism, moves in  with a young, gorgeous, adoring actress, wreaks havoc with the reputations of his former patroness, and plots his entry to the ranks of the nobility on the basis of his mother’s family name.  Meanwhile, his enemies, who have no illusions, plot his ruin.  His fall is as rapid as his rise, and in his selfishness, he manages to drag down his old friend by forging some checks in his name.  The third part of the book narrates his ignominious return home, and the struggles of David to make good on his inventions.

The brutally sharp dealing and downright fraud by which David Sechard is parted from his money and his patent rights is portrayed in detail that is both excruciating and exasperating.  Clearly, Balzac was writing from more than a literary point of view – he is passionate in his portrayal of the materialistic and cyncial values of the actors.  In the end, David comes out all right, but not wealthy, and is happily married to Lucien’s beautiful sister. 

Lucien resolves on suicide, but those who find his note understand that if he does not end his life immediately, he will be safe.  His shame and remorse won’t last too long – he’ll start building castles in the air again.  As it is, on the brink, he is picked up by a traveller, Vautrin, Cheat-Death, Carlos Herrera, the ominous, Machiavellian, homosexual operator who moves in and out of Balzac’s Human Comedy.  Herrera buys Lucien’s body and soul for the amount of David’s debts and the promise of revenge.   

Next stop, A Harlot High and Low or  Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, where the adventures of Lucien continue!