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First English edition
|Publisher||H. S. Nichols (English)|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Bouvard et Pécuchet is an unfinished satirical work by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1881 after his death in 1880.
Although it was conceived in 1863 as Les Deux Cloportes ("The Two Woodlice"), and partially inspired by a short story of Barthélemy Maurice (Les Deux Greffiers, "The Two Court Clerks", which appeared in La Revue des Tribunaux in 1841 and which he may have read in 1858), Flaubert did not begin the work in earnest until 1872, at a time when financial ruin threatened. Over time, the book obsessed him to the degree that he claimed to have read over 1500 books in preparation for writing it—he intended it to be his masterpiece, surpassing all of his other works. He only took a minor break, in order to compose Three Tales in 1875–76. It received lukewarm reviews: critics failed to appreciate both its message and its structural devices.
Bouvard et Pécuchet details the adventures of two Parisian copy-clerks, François Denys Bartholomée Bouvard and Juste Romain Cyrille Pécuchet, of the same age and nearly identical temperament. They meet one hot summer day in 1838 by the canal Saint-Martin and form an instant, symbiotic friendship. When Bouvard inherits a sizable fortune, the two decide to move to the countryside. They find a 94-acre (380,000 m2) property near the town of Chavignolles in Normandy, between Caen and Falaise, and 100 miles (160 km) west of Rouen. Their search for intellectual stimulation leads them, over the course of years, to flounder through almost every branch of knowledge.
Flaubert uses their quest to expose the hidden weaknesses of the sciences and arts, as nearly every project Bouvard and Pécuchet set their minds on comes to grief. Their endeavours are interleaved with the story of their deteriorating relations with the local villagers; and the Revolution of 1848 is the occasion for much despondent discussion. The manuscript breaks off near the end of the novel. According to one set of Flaubert's notes, the townsfolk, enraged by Bouvard and Pécuchet's antics, try to force them out of the area, or have them committed. Disgusted with the world in general, Bouvard and Pécuchet ultimately decide to "return to copying as before" (copier comme autrefois), giving up their intellectual blundering. The work ends with their eager preparations to construct a two-seated desk on which to write.
This was originally intended to be followed by a large sample of what they copy out: possibly a sottisier (anthology of stupid quotations), the Dictionary of Received Ideas (encyclopedia of commonplace notions), or a combination of both.
The work resembles the earlier Sentimental Education in that the plot structure is episodic, giving it a picaresque quality. Because Bouvard and Pécuchet rarely persevere with any subject beyond their first disappointments, they are perpetually rank beginners: the lack of real achievement and the constant forward movement through time (as shown through the rapid political changes from 1848 to 1851) create a strong sense of tension in the work.
Nowhere does Flaubert's exploration of the relation of signs to the objects they signify receive a more thorough treatment than in this work. Bouvard and Pécuchet systematically confuse signs and symbols with reality, an assumption that causes them much suffering, as it does for Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau. Yet here, due to the explicit focus on books and knowledge, Flaubert's ideas reach a climax.
The relentless failure of Bouvard and Pécuchet to learn anything from their adventures raises the question of what is knowable. Whenever they achieve some small measure of success (a rare occurrence), it is the result of unknown external forces beyond their comprehension. In this sense, they strongly resemble Anthony in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a work which addresses similar epistemological themes as they relate to classical literature. Lionel Trilling wrote that the novel expresses a belief in the alienation of human thought from human experience. The worldview that emerges from the work, one of human beings proceeding relentlessly forward without comprehending the results of their actions or the processes of the world around them, does not seem an optimistic one. But given that Bouvard and Pécuchet do gain some comprehension of humanity's ignorant state (as demonstrated by their composition of the Dictionary of Received Ideas), it could be argued that Flaubert allows for the possibility of relative enlightenment.
In Bouvard et Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert made fun of 18th and 19th century attempts to catalogue, classify, list, and record all of scientific and historical knowledge. In October 1872, he wrote, the novel is "a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce... I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger... I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me... It will be big and violent." It is possible that the stress contributed to his death as he was drawing near to the close of the novel. Indeed, in 1874, he confessed to George Sand "[it] is leading me very quietly, or rather relentlessly, to the abode of the shades. It will be the death of me!"
Ezra Pound wrote "Flaubert having recorded provincial customs in Madame Bovary and city habits in the Sentimental Education, set out to complete his record of nineteenth century life by presenting all sorts of things that the average man of the period would have had in his head." Pound compared Bouvard et Pècuchet to Joyce's Ulysses (Pound/Joyce 201).
Julian Barnes said that it "requires a stubborn reader, one willing to suspend normal expectations and able to confront both repetitious effects and a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning." (May 25, 2006, The New York Review of Books).