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Bouvard and Pécuchet

By Gustave Flaubert

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Dalkey Archive Press,

328 pages, $15.95

This is one of the most difficult books I've ever had to review, in part because it is ridiculous to pretend that Bouvard and Pécuchet can be meaningfully put on a scale, that it can be said to be better than, say, Madame Bovary or worse than Sentimental Education. It's a work of a different order: magnificent, at times difficult to read and (almost) beyond praise or blame. It's a novel in which much of what we know of 20th-century literature finds its origin. So, reviewing it is rather like reviewing an acorn or a seedling.

If you'd like to know whether to read this new translation, by Mark Polizzotti, the answer, I think, is "Yes." Its English is clear (as was Flaubert's French), it mostly keeps to Flaubert's paragraph breaks (they are short) and it conveys Flaubert's humour and cruelty very well. If you haven't read Bouvard and Pécuchet, this is a good translation to read and Dalkey Archive Press has done (as usual) a wonderful job. The book is handsome, features a pertinent and provocative introductory essay by Raymond Queneau, and this edition is the first to include translations of The Dictionary of Received Ideas and Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas, both of which Flaubert intended to include in the completed novel.

Another thing that makes it difficult for me to review is that, perhaps more than any other novel I've read, Bouvard and Pécuchet elicited two distinct and contradictory impressions. As a reader, I found it difficult going at times. As a writer, I thought it magnificent.

So, reader first: Bouvard and Pécuchet is the story of two middle-class Frenchmen. They are both copy clerks, spending their lives copying documents for their respective firms. They meet by chance and become fast friends. Then, Bouvard inherits a considerable sum of money. They decide to move to the country, to escape the ravages of the city. They buy a farm. Their problems begin when they decide to grow things. Not knowing how it's done, they buy books on the matter and try to apply the theories they read to the reality of nature, to the reality of the land.

They fail at farming. They fail miserably. And this first failure is, actually, very amusing. It's like reading of Punch and Judy trying to farm. Nothing works for them. They make a mess of what they have. Undaunted, they decide to learn all they can about chemistry. Here, too, they fail, and nearly blow themselves up in the process. And this too is kind of amusing. Having failed as chemists, they try archeology, then history, then literature . . . and so on until, by the end of the book, they have gone through a considerable amount of human knowledge. Each failure is less amusing until, by Chapter 6, it becomes painful to read. It feels cruel, and there is not enough depth to the characters for one to sympathize with them.

Bouvard is large and friendly, a "hail fellow well met" with a carnal streak and a sense of humour. Pécuchet is thin and serious, embarrassed by his bodily desires and almost entirely humourless. That is as much as we get to know of them, and their journey through human knowledge doesn't change them much at all. The characters they meet in the country, farmers as well as those who live in the small town of Chavignolles, are mean, conniving, self-satisfied and unappealing. In other words, there is no one in the novel with whom one can easily identify or feel sympathy. So their fates are not, at first, particularly moving or absorbing.

And yet, after reading chapter after chapter about the failure of these clowns (and I mean clown in the best sense; they're related to Chaplin and Keaton more than to Anna Karenina or Ivan Karamazov), a strange thing happens. Pécuchet and Bouvard, feeling a genuine and acutely conveyed despair, try to commit suicide. For a moment, their suffering is made real and spiritual and one feels (at least, I felt) an unexpected sympathy for their plight. In fact, it was at that moment I felt most acutely that Bouvard and Pécuchet represent "everyman," that their entanglements with human knowledge are our entanglements, that their confrontation with all that is contradictory and misleading in "reason" is, in the end, inevitable for us all, at some time or another.

It isn't that Bouvard and Pécuchet is anti-intellectual. Flaubert is said to have read some 1,500 books to prepare for the writing of this one. And the sharp intelligence (and wit) that is behind the writing of every word of this novel speaks for itself. It's rather that we know so many small things (details, details, details) that we're led off in all directions at once, as Bouvard and Pécuchet themselves are.

After their attempted suicide, the novel resumes its course, making its way through human learning and error until the 10th chapter, where it stops. Flaubert died before finishing it, but he left notes (included in this edition) for the novel's final chapters, and we have a pretty good idea how things will end. I'm not certain the final chapters (11 and 12) would have changed much. Nor do I think they would have made the reading easier. As I mentioned, as a reader, I found the novel hard going: no truly sympathetic characters, repetition of the same situation and, worst, the growing sense that Flaubert is stuffing his research in at all costs, that Bouvard and Pécuchet, both the novel and the characters, are pretexts for research. It makes, at times, for flat reading.

Now, though all of that is true, I also felt, as a writer, that Bouvard and Pécuchet is a pivotal work of literature. It hearkens back to Don Quixote, using some of Cervantes's comedic tricks in new ways. It's a novel that is, at every moment, aware of itself, slightly scornful of its own enterprise and filled with a strange compassion for folly. At the same time as it looks back, it also anticipates work that will come 60 or 70 years later. The scene in which Bouvard and Pécuchet contemplate suicide, for instance, is pure Beckett. The chapter in which they investigate theology accomplishes all that Luis Buñuel does in his film The Milky Way.

What makes Bouvard and Pécuchet so fascinating is that it marks the beginning of a kind of conceptual art and that its "realism" is radically different from the "realism" of Madame Bovary. Whereas in Bovary, the details of the external world and human emotions are more or less faithful to the world we all have in common, in Bouvard and Pécuchet what is real is an intense idea (human ignorance), an artistic project (the comic depiction of a confrontation with human knowledge) and deeply felt emotions (anger, pity, compassion) that belong to the author more than they do to the characters.

Though the analogy is a little easy, it feels very much as if Madame Bovary were the record of an artist looking outside, while Bouvard and Pécuchet is that of an artist looking in.

There's more than that to admire. There are passages of such beauty you really feel yourself in the hands of a master. For instance, while Pécuchet and a priest are walking along a road arguing about religious matters, a rainstorm overtakes them: "Pécuchet's thin raincoat no longer had a single dry thread. The cold water ran down his spine, poured into his boots, his ears, his eyes, despite the visor on his Amoros cap. The priest, carrying the train of his cassock over one arm, uncovered his legs, and the points of his tricorn hat spewed water onto his shoulders like cathedral gargoyles."

In an instant, Flaubert is able to convey the physical discomfort of his characters, suggest the difference between them by describing their hats and include as a backdrop to their argument the heart of what it is they're arguing about: nature, power, God. This, in a book that is unfinished, a book of which we are reading an "early" draft. It suggests an innate skill with language that is possessed by only the very greatest writers (Tolstoy, Austen, Proust . . .). Along with the originality of its conception and the beauty of its writing, there is to Bouvard and Pécuchet such playfulness and despair that one feels that, of all Flaubert's novels, this is the most intimate though it's also the most abstract. He could easily have said "Bouvard et Pécuchet, c'est moi," instead of "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," and with as much justice. A great achievement, I think.

So, how to reconcile the two impressions?

Well, they don't really need reconciling, I guess. Great works usually elicit complex or contradictory reactions. That Bouvard and Pécuchet still elicits such deep feelings is a testament to its value. But it might be best to keep certain things in mind while reading it. First, it's an unfinished work and, as such, it's like the unfinished statues of Michelangelo which look like living beings trying to escape from marble. Second, its deepest effects are cumulative. It wasn't until quite late in the book, Chapter 9 (of 10), that its elegance and humanity began to resonate with me. And they resonate with me still, weeks later. So, you should persevere. It's worth it.

Contributing reviewer André Alexis has written novels, short stories and plays, and, most recently, a book for young readers, Ingrid and the Wolf. His next novel, Asylum, should be out next year.

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