Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was a French novelist best known for his first novel Madame Bovary (1857). He was (and is) enormously influential due to the heights of literary realism attained in the aforementioned Madame Bovery as well as in his Sentimental Education (1869). He also wrote with a streak of Romanticism, especially in The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), and with Baroque styling as in Salammbô (1862). Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not extremely prolific, mainly due to a nearly impossible standard of artistic expectations that he imposed on himself. He was an absolute perfectionist, spending whatever time needed to find the right word or most harmonious sentence.
Bouvard et Pécuchet is Flaubert’s final work, left unfinished by his death in 1880. He had spent the last eight years of his life working on it, claiming to have read 1,500 books in preparation for the story. He stated that his goal in writing this work was “nothing less that to conduct a review of all modern thinking.” While some of the themes are similar to his previous works, and the episodic nature of the work makes use of a structure he had previously utilized, Bouvard et Pécuchet was a significant departure for both Flaubert and the artistic course of the novel as an art form. The Arion Press prospectus for this edition sums up the dichotomy Flaubert gifted future generations:
He is credited with both inventing the modern novel, in ‘Madame Bovary’, and in rendering it passé, in ‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’.
Bouvard & Pécuchet is an important work, as one seemingly can draw a straight line from this to Joyce, Beckett, Borges and others that were to be so influential in the twentieth century. The prospectus, quoting translator Mark Polizzotti, goes on to say:
‘Bouvard & Pécuchet’ is not only a precursor of Modernism — it has rightly been placed alongside the avant-garde masterpieces of the twentieth century — but also, arguable, the first postmodern novel…This epic of ordinary life…this comic panorama in which nothing happens…
This “masterpiece of satire and humor” makes a relentless target of the egoism of humanity and for the “mental laziness that leads us to have others do our thinking for us.” The 18th and 19th century saw tremendous advancements which fed an optimistic belief that humanity, through science, could catalogue all knowledge. Flaubert’s protagonists show the Quixotic nature of such endeavors, especially when ‘learning’ outpaces actual understanding. As Bouvard and Pécuchet stumble through trying to become experts in such diverse fields as chemistry, agriculture, religion, literature, politics and love, a careful reader is taken back to the beginnings of western culture and the wisdom of Socrates in understanding how little we do know. Flaubert skewers the lack of humility and the loss of that most basic lesson of Socrates by highlighting the contradictions, fallacies and lack of holistic comprehension that plague all attempts at truly understanding the world around us (none of which seems to stop each subsequent generation from congratulating ourselves on how enlightened we are compared to those who came before us). By no means is this a rejection of science, it is simply a reminder of the limits of our understandings. Yes, the protagonists in this work are not inherently capable of true understanding, but I would suggest they were deliberately created to represent humanity as a whole (including self-fashioned ‘elites’ of today).
I believe it fair to say that the ultimate impact and influence of this work has always been limited by its lack of popularity and a failure to grasp or heed its messages. This work is somewhat casually pedantic (though approachable) and lacks a riveting plot-line that holds ones emotions or attention beyond an interest in each episode individually. Nor are there characters that grab our attention, sympathetic or not. The protagonists are essentially dolts; bumbling, limited, incapable, yet intellectually curious. For example:
To induce indigestion artificially, they crammed meat into a vial filled with gastric juices from a duck, and they carried it under their armpits for two weeks, with no result other than getting an infection.
They were seen running along the main road to town, wearing sopping wet clothes under the broiling sun. This was to verify whether thirst can be quenched by applying water to the epidermis. They returned home panting and both suffering from colds.
The kindest thing that can be said of them, as stated in the introduction to this edition, is that they represent “a classic tale of human aspiration: the age-old desire to be more than oneself, to reach fulfillment, to find happiness.“ In the course of their failures, they do occasionally reach some wise conclusions, such as when Bouvard says (akin to Socrates aforementioned):
Science is based on data supplied by a small corpus of knowledge. Perhaps it doesn’t apply to all the rest that we don’t know about, which is much more vast, and which we can never understand.
The minor characters are almost all caricatures of types that Flaubert needed to flush out the story, with none seeming truly human in complexity. Despite these negatives, the work is quite entertaining, comedic and thought-provoking and makes an excellent addition to a thinking persons library. As Mr. Polizzotti says:
But in its ability to create the illusion of humdrum everyday life (and keep it engaging), its self-devouring structure, and its humor that progressively corrodes the reader’s every acquired certainty, it might well be the most forward-looking novel of the nineteenth century.
One who is intellectually curious about the fields Bouvard and Pécuchet meander through, or enjoy philosophical inquiries into the quest for knowledge and the hubris of humanity, will greatly enjoy the dry deadpan approach that Flaubert utilizes in presenting his survey of human learning.
After studying medicine and giving up (“the wellsprings of life remain hidden, there are too many illnesses, remedies are hard to determine, and not one author gives a reasonable definition of health, illness, …“) they decide to live longer following a “judicious diet“. Soon they wondered:
How had they managed to survive until then?
The dishes they loved were forbidden… All meats have drawbacks…Vegetables cause heartburn, macaroni gives you bad dreams, cheeses, “as a general rule, are hard to digest.” A glass of water in the morning is “dangerous”. Every beverage and foodstuff was followed by a similar warning, or else the words “Harmful! To be consumed in moderation! Not recommended for everyone!” Why harmful? What constituted moderation? How could you tell if something was recommended for you?
What a problem meals had become! They gave up coffee with milk, given its baneful reputation, and then chocolate, “a mass of indigestible substances”. There was still tea. But “nervous individuals should avoid it entirely”.
Nothing has changed since these words were written, except ‘experts’ changing their minds repeatedly on what is good for us and what is bad for us. After a bout of studying history, our heroes come to the conclusion that:
Ancient history is obscure because there are too few documents. In modern history there are too many.
True enough. Who would not be confused, in an example such as:
Livy attributes the founding of Rome to Romulus; Sallust gives the honor to Aeneas’s Trojans. Coriolanus died in exile, according to Fabius Pictor, or through the scheming of Attius Tullus, if one were to believe Denys. Seneca maintains that Horatius returned victorious, while Dion Cassius says he was wounded in the leg….
There was no consensus about the antiquity of the Chaldeans, the century of Homer, the existence of Zoroaster, of the two Assyrian empires. Quintus Curtius made up stories. Plutarch contradicts Herodotus. We would have a very different image of Caesar if Vercingetorix had penned his own ‘Commentaries’.
They study literature, and tiring of it, turn to theatrical plays.
By and large, they were even stupider than the novels. For theater follows a conventional history, which cannot be altered. Louis XI will never fail to kneel before the images on his hat. Henry IV will be consistently jovial, Mary Stuart weepy, Richelieu cruel. Finally, all the characters are presented of a piece, in deference to simple ideas and out of respect for ignorance — so that the playwright ends up lowering rather than elevating, and instead of forming minds he dulls them.
As for Art in general, it “on some occasions, can move mediocre spirits, and worlds can be revealed by its most heavy-handed interpreters.” In addition:
Truth too slavishly adhered to undermines beauty, and the preoccupation with beauty impedes truth. At the same time, without an ideal there’s no truth; this is why types have a more sustained reality than portraits. Art, mover, deals only in verisimilitude. But verisimilitude depends on who observes it, is relative, fleeting.
“I understand,” said Bouvard. “The beautiful is beautiful, and the sublime is very beautiful. How can we tell them apart?”
“By means of tact,” answered Pécuchet.
“And where does Tact come from”?
“What is taste?”
It is defined as a particular discernment, rapid judgment, the ability to distinguish certain relations.
“So in the end, taste is taste — and none of this tells us how to have it.”
On politics, while lamenting universal suffrage, in the spirit of todays elite class, Bouvard rues “people’s stupidity” in some thoughts that remind me of H.L. Mencken’s “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard“:
Think of everyone who bought Revalesciere tonic, Dupuytren hair restorer, chatelaine lotion, and so on! Those ninnies form the electoral masses, and we are subject to their will.
Pécuchet later follows with:
Since the bourgeois are vicious, the workers jealous, the priests obsequious, and the masses ultimately accepting of any tyrant, so long as he leaves their snouts in the trough…
Failing in love, as with everything else, they discuss women.
Strange need! Is it even a need? They incite you to crime, to heroism, to mindlessness! Hell in a skirt, heaven in a kiss — warbling of a turtledove, writhing of a snake, claws of a cat; treacherous as the sea, fickle as the moon.
It is no wonder they fail with women also! Turning to religion, they try to wrap their heads around:
If God had a will, a goal, if He acted toward a purpose, that would mean that He needed something, which means He would be lacking in perfection. He would not be God.
Our world is therefore but a point in the totality of things –and our universe, which the intelligence cannot penetrate, only one universe in an infinity of neighboring universes with infinite modifications. Extension envelopes our universe, but is enveloped by God, who contains in His thought all possible universes, and His thought is itself contained in His substance.
Having earlier established that “Substance is what exists of itself and in itself, without cause or origin. This substance is God…” our heroes gave up on this line of thought as it was simply too much to grasp. They start dabbling in logic and ruminating about sense and reason:
If a single individual can know nothing, why should every individual taken together know more? An error, even one a hundred thousand years old, does not become true simply by virtue of longevity. The mob invariably follows the beaten path. On the contrary, progress is made by the few.
Is it better to trust what the senses tell us? They can sometimes be deceptive, and convey only appearances. The heart of the matter escapes them.
Reason offers more guarantees, being immutable and impersonal. But to manifest itself, it has to be incarnated. Thus, reason becomes ‘my’ reason. A rule matters little if it is false. We can’t even prove that this one is true.
Reason should therefore be monitored by the senses. But this can lead to deeper shadows. A confused sensation will induce a defective law, which will then impede a clear view of things.
After all, it doesn’t exist. You simply float off into the dew, the breeze, the stars. You become part of the tree sap, the sparkle of fine gemstones, birds’ plumage. You give back to nature what she has lent you. The void yawning before us is no more terrifying than the void stretching behind us.
They tried to imagine it as an intense night, a bottomless pit, an endless faint. Anything was better than this monotonous, absurd, hopeless existence.
Our mortal life is painted in such deplorable colors that our only choice is to abandon it and turn to God instead.
In short, this work, while humorous, demands contemplation, especially in how each of us plays some part Bouvard and some part Pécuchet in the world we live in. Even today, we know so little.
As for this edition itself from Arion Press,the design is by Andrew Hoyem. The book size is rather large at 13-7/8 by 10 inches, allowing a generous and easy to read type and white spacing. The type is a rare Czechoslovakian type named for its designer, Oldrich Menhart, a calligrapher, lettering artist, and type designer of over twenty faces. The text is 14 point monotype, with display in handset 18 and 24 point. The style is light and fluid and is easy to read. The page size allows marginal excerpts throughout, written by Andrew Hoyem and printed from polymer plates in red-brown ink (The prospectus tell us “in keeping with the occupation of ‘Boulevard and Pecuchet’, the pages of the novel are decorated with hand-written passages in the margins, excerpted from the adjacent text block“). The work was printed on a Miller two-color cylinder letterpress in two colors throughout on mould-made laid paper from the Magnani mill in Italy. The paper is gorgeous to the eye and to the feel.
The translation is by Mark Polizzotti, who also provides the introduction. Arion Press gives a synopsis of Mr. Polizzotti’s impressive background:
Translator Mark Polizzotti is the biographer of Andre Breton and has written on the Surrealists, European film, and the work of Bob Dylan. He has published nearly fifty translations from French, including work by the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature, Patrick Modiano. Among his translations of Modiano are the The Black Notebook, After the Circus, Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas, and Pedigree: A Memoir. In 2016, he received the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award in Literature. Polizzotti is the publisher and editor-in- chief of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s publishing program.
I have not read any other translation of this work, so cannot comment on the relative merits. Suffice to say, this was quite humorous throughout, so Mr. Polizzotti seems to have done a fantastic job.
About the Edition
- Designed by Andrew Hoyem
- Translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti
- Set (14 point in monotype; 18 and 24 point in handset) in a rare Czechoslovakian type named for its designer, Oldrich Menhart, a calligrapher, lettering artist, and type designer of over twenty faces
- Printed on a Miller two-color cylinder letterpress in two colors throughout on mould-made laid paper from the Magnani mill in Italy
- Frontispiece and marginal excerpts were written by Andrew Hoyem and printed from polymer plates in red-brown ink
- The book is sewn by hand and bound in covers with two colors of cloth, blue-green and violet-magenta, and is presented in a cloth-covered slipcase
- The page format is 13-7/8 by 10 inches, 232 pages
- Limited to 300 copies, $750 ($525 for subscribers)
Pictures of the Edition
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