The consolation of sadness in literature has always been that fiction names despair and helps to conquer it by knowing. But Gustave Flaubert offers no such comfort in Bouvard and Pécuchet. His heroes start out dumb and stay dumb. This is why his final, unfinished novel is prized by the avant-garde: it spurns a fictional convention so ontologically ineffable we hardly knew it was there.
The eponymous characters, Abbott and Costello–style morons, spectacularly fail to conquer various fields of knowledge, including farming, archeology, history, literature, politics, philosophy, gymnastics, love, religion, teaching, and transcribing. The book does not have a plot so much as a cycle of repetitions. A typical chapter begins with Bouvard writing his banker to send books on his latest obsession, which he and Pécuchet utterly misunderstand. (“The problem with reading,” warns Blanchot, “is the reader.” He probably had this book in mind.) They set about putting their wrongheaded expertise to use, attracting acolytes from a nearby village of colorfully stupid rustics, whose enthusiasm curdles into rage when Bouvard and Pécuchet plunge them all into scandal. Depressed, the heroes mope, but they quickly recover and, bursting with enthusiasm, announce a new obsession and send for more supplies. Like us, when inspired, they go shopping.
This book is a tornado of cliché. With a flourish the Oulipo admire—Raymond Queneau wrote the preface for this edition—clichés are the sole hermeneutic tool deployed by Flaubert’s characters. Bouvard and Pécuchet are prone to feeling “an almost religious veneration for the Earth’s opulence” and other such vacant exuberances. “Everything they had seen enchanted them” and “a magnificent dream consumed them.” Optimism, says Flaubert, leads to disappointment, is disappointment’s certain early phase, its deceivingly seductive overture. This vicious reductio ad absurdum of Romantic thought is as funny as Flaubert intends it and twice as discouraging.
Flaubert is obsessed with the exactness of Bouvard and Pécuchet’s failure. Of his heroes’ disaster as farmers, he writes,“the hotbed was soon crawling with larva… the seedlings were a desolation… the abundance of sludge ruined the strawberries.” With a Beckettian touch, they clear their farmland of stones, but “the Knoll, finally rid of rocks, yielded less than before.”
And their punishment continues—this is only chapter 2. Having ruined their fields for farming, they fail next at landscape architecture and throw what has to be the least successful party in all of French literature.The heroes end the experiment “disgusted with humanity,” and yet two pages later, they still think themselves “very serious individuals, occupied with useful pursuits.” This final sentiment is hard to disagree with; who of us would dare to think its opposite, that we are frivolous, fatuous, useless people who make no mark on the world? Is Flaubert right? Are we?
One hundred twenty-five years after Flaubert’s death, his Bouvard and Pécuchet still shocks, and its abundance of wicked joys still feel dangerous. This new edition from Dalkey Archive Press also contains the author’s twin compendiums of banality, the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and the Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas, which are so well translated by Mark Polizzotti they seem to have been written in current English. In Polizzotti’s hands, Bouvard and Pécuchet remains among the fastest, funniest, meanest books in the canon.