How stupid people are

John Sturrock

  • Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Mark Polizzotti
    Dalkey Archive, 328 pp, £8.99, January 2006, ISBN 1 56478 393 6
  • Flaubert: A Life by Frederick Brown
    Heinemann, 629 pp, £25.00, May 2006, ISBN 0 434 00769 2

Of the three books that Gustave Flaubert was able to write only after a lengthy cohabitation with his sources, Bouvard et Pécuchet is by some way the most approachable. The other two are exhibition pieces, admirable for their form but keeping their distance, full as they are of the rare knowledge he had come to by his reading. In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the desert-dwelling anchorite of that name – an antisocial paragon to whom Flaubert felt sufficiently drawn to go on writing and rewriting the book for thirty years – endures a punishing series of night-time intrusions from various biblical, classical and other phantasmal interlocutors, until the sun comes up and the saint can go back to his solitary prayers. In Salammbô, a novel set in Carthage in the third century BC, Flaubert re-creates the décor of the city, its mores and its bloody goings-on so attentively that the setting comes to seem the main reason for the book’s existence. When the great critic of the day, Sainte-Beuve, faulted it for historical implausibilities, he received a surprisingly temperate ticking-off from its author, who quoted the scholarly authorities he had relied on to demonstrate that he knew more and better about Hamilcar’s home-town than did his dilettante critic.

With Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert surpassed himself: where before he had been merely diligent in mugging up on what he thought he needed to know, he now became obsessive. For years on end in the 1870s, he was in pursuit of books on a wide range of disciplines that were unfamiliar to him: anatomy, chemistry, agriculture, archaeology and several more besides. In August 1873, writing to one of his favourite correspondents, Edma Roger des Genettes, he claimed that since the previous September he had read and made notes on 194 titles, and his final estimate was that he had consulted some 1500 in all – a research curriculum the like of which can seldom if ever have crossed the mind of anyone planning a work of fiction.

It might be supposed that, as a result, Bouvard et Pécuchet drags heavily along, Salammbô-like, beneath a surfeit of documentation. But no. Here, Flaubert uses what he has learned to write something that he promised before he began would ‘aspire to comedy’, and the novel is comic, even knockabout in places, a surprisingly liberated book, on the face of it, to have come from the reined-in author of Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale. Except that in the end Bouvard et Pécuchet is every bit as bleak in its underlying life-view as those earlier books, and its two protagonists are simply burlesque versions of Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau, inadequates whose heads are filled with naive hopes for their future that an unaccommodating world will scotch at every turn. Flaubert died suddenly before he had finished the book, but he had more than made his point by the last of the three hundred pages that we have. We know how he meant to end it, because his rough notes have survived. It would have ended cruelly: not in the near-melodrama of a suicide, as with Emma, or in a descent into petit-bourgeois nullity, as with Frédéric, but in a dénouement which is perhaps more downbeat still.

What makes Bouvard et Pécuchet at once more approachable and also more curious than the Tentation or Salammbô is that on this occasion, instead of simply drawing on his sources silently in the normal way, Flaubert gives some of them at least an actual presence in the text, where Messrs B. and P. are made to turn, for the botanical, chemical, archaeological and other assorted knowledges that they believe will profit them, to the same literature in whose company their author had spent so many months. Yet far from profiting from this new knowledge, the two hopefuls find everything practical that they attempt on the strength of it going farcically wrong: the melons they grow in their horticultural phase taste like pumpkins, the liqueur they distil in the cellar explodes, their self-medication makes them ill, and so on. And when, later, they move up from more or less scientific experiments to start dabbling in the humanities, developing tastes and ambitions in literature, education, even politics, we can be sure in advance that every idea they take up will be one that Flaubert had long found either laughable or pernicious. B. and P. are given no quarter: from the start to the finish of their story, they are being played by their author for a pair of suckers.

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