Of all of Flaubert’s works the one that most appealed to me was Bouvard and Pécuchet, a story about two clerks who embark on a mission to understand everything. It was published posthumously in 1881; it was an unfinished work even though Flaubert had been working on it for nearly ten years. An earlier draft from 1863 exists which has what I feel is a better title, The Two Woodlice (Les Deux Cloportes). The two woodlice, Bouvard and Pécuchet, are single, middle-aged clerks who happen to meet and strike up a friendship one day in 1838. The meeting takes place on the first page of the book and has a Beckettian feel to it.
Two men appeared.
One came from the Bastille, the other from the Jardin des Plantes. The taller of the two, in a linen costume, walked with his hat pushed back, waistcoat undone and cravat in hand. The smaller one, whose body was enveloped in a brown frock-coat, had a peaked cap on his bent head.
When they came to the middle of the boulevard they both sat down at the same moment on the same seat.
Each took off his hat to mop his brow and put it beside him; and the smaller man noticed, written inside his neighbour’s hat, Bouvard; while the latter easily made out the word Pécuchet, in the cap belonging to the individual in the frock-coat.
‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘we both had the same idea, writing our names inside our headgear.’
‘My word, yes! Someone might take mine at the office.’
‘The same with me, I work in an office too.’
Then they studied each other.
They quickly become good friends, meeting each other at lunch or after work to go for a walk, sharing meals and conversation. They are, however, quite different: Bouvard is a widower, he has curly hair, he is rotund and is quite sociable; whereas Pécuchet is a bachelor, has black hair and is rather morose. One day Bouvard is notified that he has inherited his uncle’s fortune—this uncle is actually Bouvard’s natural father. Bouvard decides to wait until his retirement before moving to the country at Chavignolles. There is no question of Pécuchet being left behind and he is invited to share Bouvard’s good fortune.
This all happens in the first chapter. In the second chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet get used to their new surroundings and try to find out how to survive in the country. Although those around them offer advice both men dive into books and magazines to determine the best way to run their farm. They take up every hare-brained scheme that they come across, which often involves paying a lot of money for equipment, and ignore the advice of others. This sets the pattern of the whole book whereby Bouvard and Pécuchet decide they need to know about something, they then do some research and try to put in practice whatever they come across, fail, then move on to their next obsession. For example, Bouvard has read that bleeding his bullocks will fatten them up, they end up dying from it; he decides to make beer from germander (mint family) leaves which cause intestinal problems of those that try it; they decide to have a pear orchard but all the trees die. They try making jam, pickling vegetables and making bread, but fail. They then get a still and try to produce liqueurs, but after narrowly escaping death when the still explodes, Pécuchet says ‘Perhaps it is because we don’t know any chemistry!’ And so chapter three is about their attempts to understand chemistry then anatomy, medicine etc. Each subsequent chapter is taken up with their search for knowledge on a variety of subjects, always with the same lack of success. Initially Bouvard and Pécuchet are optimists, always convinced that they will be successful but by the time they get to study philosophy in chapter eight they have finally had enough and decide to commit suicide on Christmas Day but then upon seeing a midnight mass procession they turn to God. The book doesn’t end there as they end up adopting two children and then try to find the best way to educate them. Although the book is unfinished Flaubert left a plan which indicates that they end up getting a double-sided desk made so that they can go back to their original work as copyists.
Bouvard and Pécuchet is certainly a strange book and one that takes a bit of getting used to as there is no real narrative just the cycle of attempt and failure. Flaubert tries to connect the chapters to give it some overall structure but this can be rather tenuous. Although a lot of the episodes were humorous I felt that Flaubert was holding back on the humour. I wondered about his aims in writing such a book and most of what I read about it suggests that he was trying to show how pointless most knowledge is. But for me the problem is with Bouvard’s and Pécuchet’s approach to knowledge; they seem to be uncritical consumers of all knowledge regardless of its source, they seem unable to learn from their mistakes, they are merely dabblers and dilettantes and seem unwilling to listen to others’ advice. For example the fact that they can’t grow pear trees is not because the knowledge to do so is not there but it is because they are fools who are incapable of processing the information. After all, it is possible to grow pear trees. That there is a lot of useless, wrong or dangerous information around is apparent to the modern-day internet user and the ability to sift out all this crap from the relevant and useful information is a daily task that we all have to perform—sadly there are still many modern-day Bouvards and Pécuchets around.
However, all this reading had disturbed their brains.
I had a quick look in Frederick Brown’s biography of Flaubert, Flaubert: A Life, to see if I could uncover a bit more about Flaubert’s intentions in writing this book and what exactly drove him to continue with it for so long. It was interesting to find that Turgenev warned him from making it too heavy and suggested the story lent itself to a satire. Flaubert ignored Turgenev’s advice. In a letter to his sister, dated 6th June 1877, he wrote ‘At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.’ I think it is more goofy than sublime, but I don’t see that as a negative criticism as I believe that Flaubert should have played up the ‘goofiness’ even more.
In the end the main problem with it is that it’s a bit too repetitive. I felt that the last couple of chapters became a bit more focused as their route from philosophy to religion then to education had more of a narrative drive than the earlier progression through literature, drama, politics and love. It was quite a fun book to read and it was a shame Flaubert didn’t finish it but I feel that he should have paid more attention to Turgenev’s advice.