Gustave Flaubert’s last, unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet starts with a chance meeting that has the air of serene machination about it. The encounter between two Parisian copy clerks leads to a remarkable friendship. The first meeting could almost count as a reunion. After all, François Denys Bartholomée Bouvard and Juste Romain Cyrille Pécuchet, as Hugh Kenner points out in The Stoic Comedians, are really a cliché cleft in two: “Frenchmen are by turns sensual and rational; worldly, lecherous and suave, or else rigorous, logical, prickly; the fat and the thin, the optimist and the pessimist; the Mediterranean and the Roman temperament, respectively.” Care to guess which is which?
The friendship is a perfect symbiosis. Separately, Bouvard and Pécuchet were harmless bookworms. As intellectual companions, they egg each other on to ever more ludicrous levels of self-assurance. If they were to combine their mental resources, how much longer could their brilliance remain a secret to the world? An ideal opportunity to test this thesis drops in their laps in the form of a hefty inheritance. A small country house in the town of Chavignolles as their headquarters, the pair are at last free to satisfy their superhuman yearning for knowledge. “Farcical” doesn’t begin to describe the scope and outcome of their decades-long project.
From the outset it is clear that Bouvard and Pécuchet will fail with clockwork precision. Not only are they themselves liable to make a mess of things, but a hyper-charged Murphy’s Law conspires to flatten even their most innocent plans. They start off by applying their skills around the house. Bouvard picks agronomy, while Pécuchet tries his hand in fruit farming. The template for the whole book is introduced when a volley of disasters and awful decisions force the geniuses to reconsider their commitment to a particular field of study. What’s so special about farming, anyhow? After a stint of gardening, they turn their attention to the art of food preservation. Before they know it, the reserves have gone to pot:
“Their disappointment was complete. The slices of veal looked like boiled shoe soles. A murky liquid had replaced the lobster. The fish stew was beyond recognition. Mushrooms were growing on the soup. And the entire laboratory reeked with an intolerable stench.”
And then the still explodes to pieces, destroying their modest distillery. Pécuchet realizes they perhaps need to get better acquainted with chemistry. Chemistry is followed in quick succession by anatomy and medicine. The human form doesn’t hold their interest for long, and so they capture a stray dog for experimental purposes. Pécuchet dreams up the idea of testing if they can magnetize steel by contact with the poor thing’s spinal cord:
“Bouvard, swallowing his repugnance, held out a plate of needles to Pécuchet, who tried to plant them in the vertebras. They broke, slipped, fell to the floor; he picked up others and shoved them in forcefully, haphazardly. The dog broke free of its bonds, flew through the window like a cannonball, zipped across the courtyard, into the vestibule, and appeared in the kitchen.”
The bleeding dog startles the maid, who doesn’t put off any time to give her employers a piece of her mind: “This is another of your harebrained schemes, no doubt about it! And just look at my kitchen! You’ve probably given him rabies! They throw people in prison who are better than you!” Bouvard and Pécuchet move on to other things.
The thematic threads of Flaubert’s earlier novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony are woven into a new design in Bouvard and Pécuchet. The hermit saint’s day of hallucinations ends with a kind of revelation. In a vision of fluidly mutating forms straight out of Brueghel, St. Anthony finds himself reveling in the riotous fecundity of life. Life is not only complex, but becoming more so. Unlike St. Anthony, Bouvard and Pécuchet never relent in the face of this fact.
With fevered acceleration, the pair race through discipline after discipline, always hoping to master at least one branch of knowledge. Bouvard and Pécuchet share an expert’s eye for exclusion, but they possess none of the skills required to obtain new information about the phenomena under observation. This is something they have in common with most of the authorities whose suspect, tedious and thankfully forgotten titles feed their fire.
In the course of their unwise studies, the two grow from caricatures into indelible characters. For all their pigheadedness, Bouvard and Pécuchet at least put up a resistance against stupefaction and complacency. This is more than can be said of the burghers of Chavignolles, with whom the pair frequently find themselves at odds. Although Bouvard and Pécuchet are hapless in love and out of tune with the society around them, their lives have a Utopian center thanks to their extraordinary friendship and sense of curiosity. It is, plainly, a center that cannot hold. This is the Janus head of satire: Bouvard and Pécuchet is both a comical tirade against stupidity and a bullish reminder of our capacity for insight and clarity.
Mark Polizzotti’s new translation of Flaubert’s final work was published by Dalkey Archive Press in late 2005. Because I have no French, I can’t comment on the quality of the translation, but to say that the text made me smile, chuckle, laugh, frown and stare into space pondering the nature of the Absolute. I can only hope I did everything in an order that roughly corresponds with the 1880 original.