Bouvard et Pécuchet
Bouvard et Pécuchet
Marx has this wonderful quote about “the idiocy of rural life” in the Communist Manifesto. Now, as we all know, Marx was not saying that the agrarian/pastoralist mode is stultifying. Rather, he was making use of the original Greek meaning of idiot, that of being outside of public, political, life.
Despite whatever his intentions may have been, there has been uptake of the more pointed, derogatory meaning since the Manifesto was translated. More to the point, I’ve never seen it better portrayed than in the writings of Flaubert. He has this wonderful way of portraying the backwards-ness, the pettifogging and the naïveté of provincial existence. Or, at least that’s been my experience in translation. I read Madame Bovary towards the start of the summer, where it was well on display, and my recent reading of Bouvard et Pécuchet has done nothing to shake my opinion on the matter.
B & P became a bit of a Baader-Meinhof for me. I first read about it in Said’s Orientalism, where he uses the novel, or, more exactly, the characters, as exemplary of the intellectualisation of European engagement with the East, the development of a narrative approach that both ignored the actuality of life in the Near-East, and, by way of mercantile and Imperial involvement, regimented and policed that life. Anyways, following that, the book and its characters seemed to pop everywhere for me – at least once a week, whether it be in articles I was reading or videos I was watching or whatever. Finally, I figured I’d best read it and get it out of my system.
Bouvard et Pécuchet is Flaubert’s final novel, one he actually was unable to finish, dying while still working on it. An avant garde piece of work, the novel is more of an anti-novel than a proper story – the eponymous characters meet and become friends at the opening, both working as clerks in Paris. Bouvard comes into money, and the two of them move to Normandy. Living without external purpose and flush with money, they set, at first, to yeomanry. Seeing that this might actually require effort, they shift to pomology, and then to gardening, and then to…you can see where this is going. B & P flit through hundreds of disciplines and vocations, never resting more than the time it takes to run up against the first sign of difficulty. A beautifully executed allegory for the earnest, misguided approach to life that so many of our species, to an extent, our whole species, pursues. And Flaubert gives it a good crack. I’m not more than passingly acquainted with half the fields mentioned, but Gustave is able to render each with nuance, writing from an at least ostensible position of expertise. There is a reason it took the last eight years of his life and more to write.
The novel dabbles in the topical, as well. Alongside the interaction with other bourgeois and inferior members of the region, B & P are swept along with the Paris Commune, and feel the pointed terror of the counter-revolution. They dabble in the Utopian fantasies of Proudhon and Fourier, and they experiment with cutting-edge scientific theories. Through it all, they expose the failures the Enlightenment’s positivistic side, the assumption that the world will render up its secrets with a moderate shake. The execution of the haughty, half-baked intellectual, swollen with self-importance and vanity, is cringe inducing in its effectiveness and truth. The mealy-mouthed behaviour, the pride – we’ve all seen it in our lives, more than likely done it ourselves at times. Really quality stuff. Eventually, the two protagonists are meant to retire from their exhaustive pursuit, returning to the staid life of a copyist, forsaking their arrogance and settling in to complacency.
For all that, though, I’m afraid I’m reticent to recommend the book. Rather poetically, I was unable to finish it myself. I was near to, but it was such a slog – I’ve been a while struggling with it – that, come the close of the (third) loan period, I was happy to return it to the library with a few short chapters to go. I wasn’t especially impressed by Madame Bovary – it was an effective, well-constructed story, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t really live up to the hype. Discarding books, especially when I’ve committed to them for such a period, within spitting distance of the end, is quite rare for me. Only once before have I done it, with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It may have something do, in that original instance as in this, with reading works in translation. I can’t help but worry that, as much as the narrative may be faithfully conveyed, the actual language of it, the meat that gives it flavour, is stuck beyond the barrier of a foreign tongue. French is certainly on the list to learn – perhaps I’ll give it another throw once I’m on the other side.
Posted on November 4, 2015, in Reviews and tagged Book Chat, Bouvard et Pécuchet, Edward Said, Enlightenment, Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Orientalism, Review, Translation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.