Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

How happy they felt when they awoke next morning! Bouvard smoked a pipe, and Pécuchet took a pinch of snuff, which they declared to be the best they had ever had in their whole lives. Then they went to the window to observe the landscape. (Chapter 2)

Bouvard and Pécuchet was Flaubert’s last work, left unfinished at his death in 1880. However, the first ten chapters seemed complete enough to be published one year after his death, in 1881, and subsequent editions have included the notes found with the manuscript which indicate how the book was intended to be concluded.

These completed ten chapters make up some 260 pages in my Penguin paperback edition and the notes suggest there would only have been one or two further chapters i.e. we have almost all the intended text, and certainly enough material to form a judgement.

The plot

Briefly, Bouvard and Pécuchet are two humble copy-clerks, aged 47, who work in offices in different parts of Paris. One hot summer day in 1838 they happen to sit at the same public bench and notice that they’ve both written their names in the rims of their hats. They quickly find out they have other things in common, lots of other things, the kind of work they do, the things they like, the subjects they like discussing, everything. They take to meeting once a week for dinner and then more often. They fantasise about putting their schemes and ideas into practice, travelling the world, exploring, discovering.

Then Bouvard’s uncle dies – except his ‘uncle’ is in fact his natural father who sired him out of wedlock and ignored him most of his adult life. To make amends for his neglect, his uncle/dad leaves him a fortune. Bouvard and Pécuchet decide to pack in their jobs and go to Live in the Country, Close to the Land, Working the Soil, getting Back to Nature.

So they buy a farm in Normandy, and chapter two is a long, encyclopedic and deeply researched account of how they fail at absolutely everything they turn their hands to. For the book is meant to be a comedy – admittedly a rather dry comedy – and its subject is the irremediable stupidity of the two protagonists, and the blundering obtuseness of the world they live in. Flaubert wrote to one correspondent, as he laboured long and slowly over what he hoped would be his masterpiece, that he intended its sub-title to be: ‘The Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity.’

In many ways Bouvard and Pécuchet is more of a fable than a novel, in the lack of real plot or progression and the laboured making of a fairly straightforward ‘moral’ or point.

It certainly shows the triumph of the schematic, diagram-making Flaubert over the story-teller. Writing it became an obsession with Flaubert, who claimed to have read over 1,500 books in his research for it.

Having now read all of Flaubert’s works I am a bit bored by the repeated claims that he read x number of books to research each of them. Flaubert is famous for the crafting of his style, but pretty much all of that disappears in translation. What you are left with, especially in the historical works, is great sheets of facts and names, like the almost flat surfaces of a carved frieze, as carefully and intricately designed and, often, as lifeless.

In this final book Flaubert’s obsession with facts and research reached new peaks. He first created an overall schema of human knowledge for his incompetent duo to investigate, and then set about filling in each ‘section’ with a pulverising wealth of pedantic detail. As is shown by a summary of the chapters:

Structure (with dates)

Chapter 1. First meeting and birth of their friendship. Bouvard’s inheritance (1838–41)

Chapter 2. Travel to the Normandy village of Chavignolles. Agriculture – landscape gardening, market gardening, crops (March 1841 – autumn 1842)

Chapter 3. Study of chemistry, anatomy, medicine, biology, geology.

Chapter 4. Archaeology, architecture, history (they attempt to write a biography of the Duc d’Angoulême). They set up their own ‘museum of curiosities’, and invite locals to come and visit -uniformly unimpressed.

Chapter 5. Literature, drama, grammar and aesthetics. At one point they take to declaiming great plays in front of their servants and puzzled locals.

Chapter 6. Politics – The events in this chapter coincide with the ‘revolution’ of 1848, the overthrow of King Louis Philippe, the establishment of the Second Republic, the reaction against it, and election of Louis Napoleon, first as president, and then his military coup in 1851. Different from preceding chapters, it shows the psychological impact of these events on the diverse cast of villagers, educated or peasant.

Chapter 7. Love – the hapless duo fall in love – Pécuchet with the local widow, Madame Bordin, and Bouvard with their serving girl, Mélie -and are both bitterly disappointed: Madame Bourdin turns out to be after Pécuchet’s property, and Mélie gives Bouvard the clap.

Chapter 8. Gymnastics and keeping fit, occultism (table turning), using magnetism as a cure (till the local doctor bans them from seeing his patients), spiritualism, Swedenborgism, magic, divination, theology. A lengthy investigation of philosophy leads them to despise all systems and eventually to contemplate suicide. They’re hanging nooses from the ceiling when the bell rings for the Christmas service. They attend and feel a great surge of redemption.

Chapter 9. Religion – lengthy chapter recapitulating all the arguments for and against, in conversation with the abbé, and local notables. After exploring, discussing and experiencing every type of Christian belief from rationalist to mystical, they emerge (as usual) disillusioned. At first they repel the locals for the eccentric fervour of their sudden piety, and then alienate everyone as their questioning of Christianity becomes more subversive. The local aristocrat’s sister has taken in two orphans – Victor and Victorine – who, however, have proved to be tearaways. Accompanying the servant tasked with taking them off to the local orphanage, our heroes are moved by the orphans’ plight and decide to take them in and raise them themselves.

Chapter 10. Education. Bouvard and Pécuchet apply all known theories of pedagogy to the two troublesome teenagers, who prove completely resistant. Victor becomes violent, Victorine develops a penchant for kissing boys. The pair try to dun into the children everything they have learned about physiology, chemistry, astrology, grammar and so on but, because they never understood these subjects themselves, they make a hash of trying to teach the kids, who keep asking awkward questions which expose our pair’s ignorance. Fail.

Right up to the end Bouvard and Pécuchet continue to practice their mad enthusiasms on the locals, trying out phrenology and irritating the barber whose shop they ask to use; telling the farmers how to apply chemistry to their land; angering the old farmer Gouy who has returned to make a success of their farm; criticising the gamekeeper, Sorel, for his brutality; terminally alienating the abbé for their apostasy from Catholicism; and so on.

Eventually Bouvard and Pécuchet’s oddness, immorality and irreligion have alienated pretty much the entire local community. The completed portion of the text ends as the pair are taken to court and tried for insulting the gamekeeper, who had caught a poacher. Bouvard and Pécuchet try to defend the poacher with a motley of half-cocked philosophical and political theory.

From Flaubert’s notes we can work out that in the final chapters the desperate duo narrowly escape being sent to prison by their exasperated neighbours, before eventually abandoning their Quest for Knowledge altogether. They decide to return to being simple copyests, copying out into a vast super-encyclopedia the contents of all the books they’ve gathered in the course of their adventures.

Apparently, Part Two of the book was intended to consist of this vast Copy of World Knowledge which the bumbling pair had cobbled together – of which the Dictionary of Received Opinion was to form a small part.

As they’re such good friends, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s final act was intended to be ordering a special desk-for-two, designed so that they can do their work sitting next to each other.

Satire or schema?

Flaubert’s aim is obviously to satirise 18th and 19th century attempts to catalogue, classify, list, and record all of scientific and historical knowledge. The trouble is that this aim coincides all-too-well to his own habits as an omnivorous reader-and-regurgitator. On every page of Bouvard and Pécuchet you have the feeling that you’re reading a the fleshing out of a static schema rather than a fictional text – what one of Flaubert’s most famous fans, Julian Barnes, describes as ‘a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning.’

His procedure is to list in pedantic detail all the learning about a particular subject, and then painstakingly show his hapless duo misunderstanding it and (if it has any practical application) screwing it up.

Here’s an extended example of the pair following all the best technical advice and then making a mess of market gardening – an excerpt which gives a good flavour of the book’s relentless approach.

Pécuchet was disgusted with gardening, and a few days later he remarked:

‘We ought to give ourselves up exclusively to tree culture – not for pleasure, but as a speculation. A pear which is the product of three soils is sometimes sold in the capital for five or six francs. Gardeners make out of apricots twenty-five thousand livres in the year! At St. Petersburg, during the winter, grapes are sold at a napoleon per grape. It is a beautiful industry, you must admit! And what does it cost? Attention, manuring, and a fresh touch of the pruning-knife.’

It excited Bouvard’s imagination so much that they sought immediately in their books for a nomenclature for purchasable plants, and, having selected names which appeared to them wonderful, they applied to a nurseryman from Falaise, who busied himself in supplying them with three hundred stalks, which he wanted to get rid of. They got a lock-smith for the props, an iron-worker for the fasteners, and a carpenter for the rests. The forms of the trees were designed beforehand. Pieces of lath on the wall represented candelabra. Two posts at the ends of the plat-bands supported steel threads in a horizontal position; and in the orchard, hoops indicated the structure of vases, cone-shaped switches that of pyramids, so well that, in arriving in the midst of them, you imagined you saw pieces of some unknown machinery or the framework of a pyrotechnic apparatus.

The holes having been dug, they cut the ends of all the roots, good or bad, and buried them in a compost. Six months later the plants were dead. Fresh orders to the nurseryman, and fresh plantings in still deeper holes. But the rain softening the soil, the grafts buried themselves in the ground of their own accord, and the trees sprouted out.

When spring had come, Pécuchet set about the pruning of pear trees. He did not cut down the shoots, spared the superfluous side branches, and, persisting in trying to lay the ‘duchesses’ out in a square when they ought to go in a string on one side, he broke them or tore them down invariably. As for the peach trees, he got mixed up with over-mother branches, under-mother branches, and second-under-mother branches. The empty and the full always presented themselves when they were not wanted, and it was impossible to obtain on an espalier a perfect rectangle, with six branches to the right and six to the left, not including the two principal ones, the whole forming a fine bit of herringbone work.

Bouvard tried to manage the apricot trees, but they rebelled. He lowered their stems nearly to a level with the ground; none of them shot up again. The cherry trees, in which he had made notches, produced gum.

At first, they cut very long, which destroyed the principal buds, and then very short, which led to excessive branching; and they often hesitated, not knowing how to distinguish between buds of trees and buds of flowers. They were delighted to have flowers, but when they recognised their mistake, they tore off three fourths of them to strengthen the remainder.

They talked incessantly about ‘sap’ and ‘cambium’, ‘paling up’, ‘breaking down’, and ‘blinding of an eye’. In the middle of their dining-room they had in a frame the list of their young growths, as if they were pupils, with a number which was repeated in the garden on a little piece of wood, at the foot of the tree. Out of bed at dawn, they kept working till nightfall with their twigs carried in their belts. In the cold mornings of spring, Bouvard wore his knitted vest under his blouse, and Pécuchet his old frock-coat under his packcloth wrapper; and the people passing by the open fence heard them coughing in the damp atmosphere.

Sometimes Pécuchet took his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph of it standing up with his grafting-tool near him in the attitude of the gardener who decorated the frontispiece of the book. This resemblance flattered him exceedingly, and made him entertain more esteem for the author.

Bouvard was continually perched on a high ladder before the pyramids. One day he was seized with dizziness, and, not daring to come down farther, he called on Pécuchet to come and help him.

At length pears made their appearance, and there were plums in the orchard. Then they made use of all the devices which had been recommended to them against the birds. But the bits of glass made dazzling reflections, the clapper of the wind-mill woke them during the night, and the sparrows perched on the scarecrow. They made a second, and even a third scarecrow, varying the dress, but none of them worked.

But they still hoped for plenty of fruit. Pécuchet had just mentioned it to Bouvard, when there was a crack of thunder and rain started to fall – a heavy and violent downpour. The wind at intervals shook the entire surface of the espalier. The props gave way one after the other, and the unfortunate distaff-shaped trees, swaying under the storm, smashed their pears against one another.

Pécuchet, surprised by the shower, had taken refuge in the hut. Bouvard stuck to the kitchen. They saw splinters of wood, branches, and slates whirling in front of them; and the sailors’ wives on the sea-shore ten leagues away, gazing out at the sea, had not eyes more wistful or hearts more anxious. Then, suddenly, the supports and wooden bars of espaliers facing one another, together with the rail-work, toppled down into the garden beds.

What a picture when they went to inspect the scene! The cherries and plums covered the grass, amid the dissolving hailstones. The Passe Colmars were destroyed, as well as the Besi des Vétérans and the Triomphes de Jordoigne. Of the apples, there were barely left even a few Bon Papas; and a dozen Tetons de Venus, the entire crop of peaches, rolled round in the pools of water by the side of the box trees, which had been torn up by the roots. (Chapter two)

The whole book follows this pattern. The dim duo get excited by a new topic – anatomy, chemistry, philosophy – order up as many textbooks as possible (which Flaubert names and summarises with loving care) – and then proceed to misunderstand, misapply and misuse everything they’ve read, failing at everything they turn their hands to, again and again.

So, for example, the chapter on science refers to textbooks by Regnault, Girardin, Alexandre Lauth, the Dictionary of Medical Sciences, the treatises of Richerand and Adelon, the Manual of Health by Francois Raspail, the Manual of Hygiene by Dr Morin, Becquerel’s treatise, Bégin and Lévy on diet. That’s 11 textbooks quoted and summarised in 15 pages, about one every page and a half; elsewhere the ratio is much denser. Hundreds of them.

Futility

Again and again, they generalise from their own inability to really understand a subject that it must the subject which is at fault:

History

To judge impartially they would have to read all the histories, all the memoirs, all the newspapers, and all the manuscript documents, for the least omission might cause an error, which might lead to others and so on ad infinitum. They abandoned the subject.

Grammar

They concluded that syntax is a fantasy and grammar an illusion.

Aesthetics

‘All these people who compose books of rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics seem complete idiots to me.’ (Bouvard)

Politics

‘Progress – what a farce! Politics – what a filthy mess!’ (Bouvard)

Divination

Their search never revealed anything, and each time they were extremely crestfallen.

Philosophy

They both confessed that they were tired of philosophers. So many systems only confuse you. Metaphysics is useless.

As you can see, the ‘novel’ can easily be read as an opportunity for Flaubert to express his own pessimism and universal disgust via the mouths of his dumb duo.

Epistemology

Epistemology is ‘the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope’. For intellectual critics the book amounts to a sustained critique of humans’ ability to know anything. Although they buy all the books on whichever is their latest fad, although they study them carefully and make copious notes, when Bouvard and Pécuchet come to apply this ‘knowledge’ it relentlessly ends in failure. Which suggests that people don’t – and can’t – learn.

1. The tradition of learned wit This scorn for knowledge places the book firmly in the long line of fictions of ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. the tradition of satires on the university-based, book learning of their times which attacked the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote), the new 18th century fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) or blind belief in Optimist (Candide).

Like this tradition, Flaubert ridicules knowledge and science, but the great difference is that he does it in a naturalistic style. Whereas the tradition of ‘learnèd wit’ from the later Middle Ages to the 18th century rejoiced in arcane language, out-of-the-way literary references and so on, Flaubert replaces the paraphernalia of quotes from the Bible, classical myths and abstruse theology with modern-day textbooks, guides and pamphlets, presenting the great wealth of current knowledge in a completely deadpan, serious way. (Except for the chapters about philosophy or religion which, by definition, deal with abstruse theology and Biblical quotes).

But such a crudely dismissive attitude to current scientific and cultural knowledge raises an elementary problem which is that a lot of it isn’t risible.

2. People do learn Because in agriculture, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even in the arts, there have been huge, enormous, world-changing strides since Flaubert was doing his slavish research in the 1870s. Sure, in every age lots of people are dim and/or uneducated; but in the last 140 years amazing advances have taken place on all the fronts of human enquiry and knowledge.

Thus the fundamental aim of the book – to imply that human knowledge is useless and the quest for it pointless – is wrong. There have been huge strides in, for example, agriculture. Today we can feed populations undreamed of in Flaubert’s time. In other words, his dismissal of all human knowledge seems glib and superficial, itself wilful and ignorant.

Thus I found it difficult to accept, to buy into, the book’s fundamental premise, and this made it hard to read or enjoy. Instead of someone saying something sharp and insightful about the world or human nature, it feels like an ungainly selection of very out-of-date information, assembled in the name of an untenable premise.

Its strengths

1. Narrative energy Well, there isn’t much, since in each chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet do much the same thing, namely research a topic and fail to understand or apply it. There is a sort of energy created by the narrative scaffold whereby Flaubert manoeuvres them towards each a new subject – the involvement of other characters, in particular – and the events which supposedly spark interest in each new subject though I for one found a lot of them flimsy and contrived. And then there is a sort of interest in finding out what new humiliations the author has in store for his chumps, though many times the disquisition on a particular subject ends with no particular pay-off before they set off on a new subject.

2. Episodic Because Bouvard and Pécuchet are continually abandoning each of their projects, each chapter does open with a sense of novelty (and mild hope for something new) – a bit like watching the latest episode of a long-running sitcom in which you can be confident a set of well-known characters will get themselves into a new pickle within a familiar set of conventions.

But on the down side, each of the chapters is not only long, but exhaustively long and often quite draining to read. Oscar Wilde said that a man who sets out to exhaust his subject invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners, and I think this is more true of Flaubert than any other major writer.

Cast and comedy

It would be incorrect to say the book only features the odd couple. Other characters weave in and out and by the end we’ve probably been introduced to thirty or so characters.

When they decide to buy some land in Normandy (near the village of Chavignolles) it comes with a house and a farm. The farmer, Old Gouy, has been farming it for years, along with his wife. Bouvard and Pécuchet criticise old Gouy so much that he quits, and that’s the start of the several years they spend putting into practice their book learning with such disastrous results. In the manor house they inherit an old housekeeper, Madame Germaine, whose main role is to complain about every request. Later on they acquire a wandering carpenter and his teenage help, Mélie. Late in the book Germaine quits and is replaced by a useless hunchback, Marcel.

Chavignolles supplies a surprisingly varied cast of rural characters, including:

  • Madame Bordin, a middle aged lady who very gently flirts with Bouvard
  • the Abbé Jeufroy, who they exhaust with their enquiries about theology
  • the lawyer, Monsieur Marescot
  • Monsiruer Girbal, superintendent of taxes
  • Captain Heurtaux, a local landowner
  • Beljambe, the innkeeper
  • Langlois, the grocer
  • Monsieur Foureau, the mayor
  • the local landowner, to whom everyone defers, the Comte de Faverges
  • Larsonneur, a local antiquary they write to about their discoveries

There are experts they correspond with, the gamekeeper, Sorel, who brings in a little burst of other characters in the final chapter. This cast turns out to be quite large enough to supply some quite comic scenes, a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, but in French.

With the result that there are quite a few ‘crowd’ scenes: Take the scene in chapter three where the couple accost the abbé in the road and start quizzing him about the Creation, enumerating all the arguments against the Biblical story which they have just read in their latest book. The abbé is joined by his assistant, then the mayor passing by, and then the Comte, so that by the time our duo exclaim that man is descended from apes there is enough of a crowd to respond with exclamations of horror and outrage, reported with deadpan irony by Flaubert.

Or when the couple hold a dinner party for all the worthies of the village to show off their home-grown food (which proves to be inedible) and then proudly display their garden, landscaped according to the latest principles (which the guest find ugly and disturbing).

Or the scene where our couple proudly show invited guests round their ‘museum of curiosities’, filled with interesting historical and geological curios – which is in fact an emporium of broken rubbish and random rocks, the locals treating our heroes with politeness and behind their backs muttering that they’re mad.

So there are scenes of group comedy as well as quite a few moments of out and out absurdity.

On the principle that inflammation can be prevented by lowering temperatures, they treated a woman suffering from meningitis by hanging her from the ceiling in her chair and pushing her to and fro – until her husband arrived and threw them out. (Chapter three)

If at some moments, the relentlessness of their obtuseness, and the inevitability of their failure in every enterprise they undertake, can be rather depressing; at other moments, when they pat each other on the back, take a pull on their pipes, order up a new set of textbooks, and so on, you can’t help liking them.

Details

All the above criticisms see the text at a distance, extracting generalisations about themes and character.

There’s a separate strand or level where Flaubert scores, and that is in the precision of his imagination. Flaubert became famous for the painstaking care he took with his style, agonising for a day about where to place a comma in a sentence etc but, alas, most of this painstaking work is lost in translation.

What is not lost is the clarity of the details he imagines. His ability to zero in and include just the right amount of, particularly visual, detail, is displayed throughout the book.

In the kitchen, bundles of hemp hung from the ceiling. Three old guns stood in a row over the upper part of the chimney-piece. A dresser loaded with flowered crockery occupied the space in the middle of the wall, and the window-panes with their green bottle-glass cast a pallid light over the tin and copper utensils. (Chapter two)

There are many moments like this, scattered among the more turgid reams of technical knowledge, moments when Flaubert conceives a scene and paints it in very visual terms.

The harvest was just over, and the dark masses of the stacks in the middle of the fields rose up against the tender blue of the night sky. Nothing was astir about the farms. Even the crickets were quiet. The fields were all wrapped in sleep.

The pair digested while they inhaled the breeze which blew refreshingly against their cheeks.

Above, the sky was covered with stars; some shone in clusters, others in a row or alone, at great distances from each other. A zone of luminous dust, extending from north to south, parted above their heads. Between these bright patches were vast empty spaces, and the firmament looked like an azure sea dotted with archipelagos and islets. (Chapter three)

Although, to be honest, having struggled through to the end, there are far fewer scenes of acute visual precision than in, say, Madame Bovary. Reviewing all his novels I think Bovary has more of these painted scenes than any of the others, which is one reason why it remains his best book.

Failed purpose

In fact, there is a glaring central issue with the book. Flaubert wrote to numerous friends that he hoped the book would shame the human race, amounted to a great roar of disgust and so on and so forth, but in this respect it is a complete failure. The twentieth century came along and dwarfed anything Flaubert could have imagined. Now when we look back at the tradition of Books Disgusted by Human Existence it might include Kafka, Celine, Camus, Sartre – the existentialist tradition, as well as countless twentieth century novels made ‘scandalous’ by their sexual explicitness or violence.

Seen in the light of these traditions, Bouvard and Pécuchet barely registers. Nobody reads his book in order to be ‘disgusted with humanity’. In fact, Bouvard and Pécuchet has ended up having exactly the opposite effect of what he intended. A modern reader finds it a sweet and gentle novel of rural France and its quaint characters. If you skim over the tedious expositions of mid-nineteenth century phrenology or geology or aesthetics, you are left with a series of comic scenes:

  • Pécuchet hiding in a ditch overhearing the colloquy between the local tough Gorjou and his married mistress
  • the villagers peeking through holes in the fence to watch the couple ludicrously act out scenes from French classical plays
  • the lofty condescension of the local aristocrat, as the pair show him round their ramshackle collection of local curios
  • the irritation of the barber who gives them a corner of his shop to practice ‘phrenology’ in, only for it to become packed out with credulous peasants
  • the ridiculousness of the pair trying to argue the gamekeeper out of shooting animals by invoking the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza

In fact, if Bouvard and Pécuchet has any value, it is as precisely the opposite of a searing, devastating, world-shaking monster of bourgeois-bating satire – and instead as a gentle, humorous portrait of rural French life and its cast of harmless buffoons.

Brief summary

Its complete lack of psychological development or anything resembling a conventional ‘plot’ – the monotonous effect of the pair’s relentless failures – and the long passages of dusty book learning which are transcribed purely to bring out their contradictions and futility – make Bouvard and Pécuchet in many ways a difficult book to read.

The (occasional) precision of Flaubert’s visual imagination, the (occasional) comic scenes – especially involving exasperated members of the local community – and the warmth of the relationship between the hapless pair – just about make it worth reading.

If I was recommending Flaubert’s books to a friend who hadn’t read them I think I would order them thus:

  • Madame Bovary – the best written, most sensual and pictorial, and the most compelling plot
  • Sentimental Education – for all the flaws of the central character, portrays the social and political life of Paris through an important period in its history
  • Three Tales – short and very readable products of his mature style
  • Salammbô – a richly atmospheric and grisly, though dry and often melodramatic historical novel
  • Bouvard and Pécuchet – difficult, often deadly boring
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony – very hard to read

The movie

The French made a movie of it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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