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.

And that is why the book is so curious, because he can’t play them for suckers without at the same time seeming to play himself for one. Can he have waded – complainingly: see his correspondence over the months of preparation – through all those hundreds of books simply to show what he described as ‘two rather lucid, mediocre and simple souls’ being led astray? He could have done that on a tenth the amount of background reading. As it is, it looks as though he has deliberately misused his own time in order to show his, as it turns out, insufficiently lucid simpletons misusing theirs: as though the successive pratfalls that they are asked to take in the course of the book are so many opportunities for Flaubert to draw attention to his unusual capacity for suffering in the service of a transcendent Art. No wonder he told George Sand as he set out on the novel that it would be the modern ‘counterpart’ of Saint Antoine (the final version of which he had just sent off to the publisher). He is reverting in Bouvard et Pécuchet to the role of St Anthony, with the prolonged ascesis of the book’s gestation finding its reward in the encyclopedic range of the contents and in the particularity with which Flaubert is able to mock the efforts of his two boobies, along with the whole way of life of the society they live among.

B. and P. are not being punished for being intellectually inquiring. That they should want to know things is fine; where they go radically wrong is in wanting to pass beyond knowing into doing. No sooner have they begun to inquire, for example, into the prevailing theories of education, than they feel they already know enough to put them to the test. Having recruited three or four local children, they set about applying their new expertise. Real children – and these ones, a squalid brood whose absent father is doing time, represent reality at its most unco-operative – prove to be unteachable. There is a limit, on the other hand, to how far B. and P. will be free to go. Hands-on as they are in their aspirations, the field of ‘pure’ science will remain firmly closed to them. Flaubert very much approved of Science in the abstract, above all because it was not reducible to a set of personal or partisan opinions. Scientists may disagree with one another but, when they do, the appeal on both sides of the argument is to hard facts, and what a relief that was for a man as irascible as Flaubert, who had a serious problem with opinions which lacked the backing of the hard facts that might have justified them. Confidently advanced as they generally were, they sent this permanently indignant man into a rage. What, correspondingly, put him at his ease was the spirit of scepticism, and Science was the strongest of all forces for scepticism, in a society drowning as he believed in flimsy and unexamined religious and political dogma.

Whoever bought into dogma had to go down as stupid: these credulous folk were suffering from the affliction – la bêtise – that Flaubert had early on decided was pandemic in the society around him. He began finding it laughable at the age of ten: ‘How stupid people are, how dim-witted,’ he wrote to his first friend Ernest Chevalier, after witnessing the excitement with which the citizens of Rouen came out to welcome King Louis-Philippe. And then, as time went by, stupidity went from being merely laughable to being intolerable. By the time he wrote Bouvard et Pécuchet, his intolerance had reached the point where he described it as verging on ‘dementia’, and he meant this to be the book that would let it be known just how offensively stupid humankind was, the book in which, he told Ernest Feydeau, ‘I shall try to puke up my bile over my contemporaries.’

Those contemporaries might have had a foretaste of what was in store for them had he chosen to publish the slighter and less bilious work that he had begun many years before: his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, or alternatively ‘Catalogue des opinions chic’. He had envisaged this as forming part of a longer work of fiction, and the publisher of this new – and, in my sampling of it, first-rate – translation of Bouvard et Pécuchet has rightly included it, to serve as a postscript to the novel. As a sardonic index to the truisms and untruisms that would have been thoughtlessly exchanged in Flaubert’s day wherever two or three members of the bourgeoisie were convened, the dictionary is an unusually engaging historical document, if a little hard to respond to with the chuckles of recognition it would have earned 150 years ago. At its head is a Latin saw with which he was in perfect disagreement: Vox populi, vox Dei, a chic opinion not to be borne by someone who would have preferred never to hear the voice of the people at all, let alone be asked to respect it as the mouthpiece of a God who had chosen for no doubt sound reasons to remain speechless.

Flaubert had first mentioned the projected dictionary and the novel it was to go with as far back as September 1850, when writing – from Damascus: he was on an 18-month tour of the Middle East with Maxime du Camp – to the closest of his literary confidants, his fellow Rouennais, Louis Bouilhet.

This book, completely finished and preceded by a good preface where we would indicate how the work has been written to reconnect the public to tradition, to order, to general convention, and arranged in such a manner that the reader is not to know whether or not he is being played for a fool – that would perhaps be a strange book, but capable of succeeding, for it would be entirely topical.

Bouvard et Pécuchet is just about recognisable in that early prospectus and none the worse for not having a preface of the kind Flaubert was proposing. Any such attempt to confuse people as to what the novelist’s intentions were could hardly have worked at the time and would certainly be redundant now. ‘Strange book’ or no, its writer’s intentions are as clear as could be: to heap scorn on as many embodiments as he can find room for of the universal bêtise. It’s not Messrs B. and P. alone who are asked to hold their pose as models of stupidity throughout this novel, but everyone in their Normandy milieu, from the titled backwoodsmen in their châteaux down to the crapulous peasantry in their barnyards.

To judge by what Maxime du Camp wrote of him later, in his Souvenirs littéraires, Flaubert was a poor sightseer when they were together in the Middle East, more easily roused from his divan by Cairo’s prostitutes than by the glamour of the pyramids. But even though he was spared by his temporary whereabouts from having to listen to or observe the French bourgeoisie doing its daily best to infuriate him, there was still reassuring evidence of stupidity on hand – and none more eye-catching than that left behind him by ‘Thompson of Sunderland’, a vandal out of the North who had scrawled his name and address on Pompey’s column in Alexandria in letters that Flaubert claims could be read ‘a quarter of a league away’. More significantly stupid than Thompson of Sunderland, however, was Auguste Comte, one of whose books Flaubert had been persuaded to read while visiting Jerusalem. Comte, the arch Positivist and promoter of a future ‘religion of humanity’, did not make for good holiday reading. Flaubert told Bouilhet that he had found the book ‘assommant de bêtise’, or stupid enough to put one to sleep. Comte was a utopian thinker, and utopians above all others were stupid, because:

Stupidity consists in wanting to conclude. We are a thread and we want to know the pattern. That goes back to those everlasting discussions about the decadence of art. Now one spends one’s time telling oneself we are completely finished, here we are at the very end etc etc. What mind of any strength – beginning with Homer – has ever come to a conclusion?

Scepticism of that all-embracing order is the attitude that the weak-minded B. and P. are of course to be denied: they jump daily not to their own conclusions, but to those of the authorities and the opinion-formers of whom they are the captives.

The prehistory of Bouvard et Pécuchet can in fact be traced back even further than Flaubert’s letter from Damascus. In his magnificently thorough and consistently illuminating new life, Frederick Brown locates the book’s origins as early as 1839, when Flaubert was 18 years old and a schoolboy in Rouen (the city where he was born and in or very close to which he lived for the rest of his life). Young Gustave was slow learning to read – a slowness from which Jean-Paul Sartre’s monster psychography L’Idiot de la famille was able to draw life-shaping conclusions – but not slow in wanting to write. At 18 he not only wrote but got published in a review a sketch that Brown describes as ‘brilliantly mordant’, which it probably shouldn’t have been coming from someone so young. It was entitled ‘Une leçon d’histoire naturelle: Genre commis’, and was a portrait of a stock social ‘type’, a ‘character’, in the old moraliste tradition. The type in this case was the Office Clerk or Bookkeeper, of whose typical habits and working practices a child of the professional classes like Flaubert can have had no first-hand experience but whose Pooterish fatuity he was happy to imagine: ‘He sings what he writes between closed teeth and makes ceaseless music with his nose, but, when pressed, he has no peer for spitting out commas, periods, dashes, final flourishes … Office talk revolves around the winter thaw, slugs, the repaving of the port, the iron bridge, gaslights.’ And so on.

B. and P. are this cartoon figure’s linear descendants, two copying clerks in Paris at the start of the book, employed for no higher skill than their good handwriting. Their métier being what it is, they are not paid to think for themselves. Their full names have a touch of romance about them: François Denys Bartholomée in the one case, Juste Romain Cyrille in the other – a sign that wherever in society they belong, it is somewhere better than sitting on a stool in an office. The possibility of somewhere better arrives when, out of the blue, Bouvard inherits 250,000 francs from an uncle. (The lawyer’s letter giving him the good news is dated, intriguingly, January 1839, as though Flaubert himself was remembering the adolescent squib he had published in that year.) The windfall elevates the two of them into the rentier class, a vital qualification for those about to engage on a sustained demonstration of their stupidity. Having moved to their own place in the country, the ex-copyists are free to pursue their hitherto stifled ambitions, and to make it apparent, alas, that once a copyist, always a copyist, as they first follow expert advice of a practical sort, and then, once they’ve turned instead in their frustration to the higher realms of literature, politics and religion, plunge into a world of stale opinions regarding, say, the merits of Sir Walter Scott – how he brings history alive! – or Flaubert’s close friend George Sand, with her ‘fine adulteries and noble lovers’. (Pécuchet is even smitten by Sand’s socialism, and her bénisseuse or benevolent side, which Flaubert, truly fond of her though he was, never ceased to protest at.) In the dénouement to the story that Flaubert didn’t live to write, B. and P. would have at last been brought to see that they had been living above their proper station and gone back to their copying desks.

It’s small wonder that Bouvard et Pécuchet should have been Flaubert’s most openly misanthropic book: the closing chapters of Brown’s biography don’t make very happy reading. When the disastrous war with Prussia started in 1870, he suddenly showed he was by no means as indifferent to his country’s welfare as everyone might have supposed: he enlisted in the Garde Nationale, where for once he was able to use the uncomfortably loud voice for which he was well known in the national interest – shouting orders to his contingent. His previously unsuspected patriotism was wasted, as it turned out. The French army was routed and the defeat was brought literally home to him by the billeting of Prussian officers on his cherished sanctuary and workplace at Croisset. This enforced exile, along with the horrors of the Paris Commune, which he saw as ‘the final manifestation of the Middle Ages’, convinced him that France was done for, that in future it would be no better a place to live than Belgium: anti-Art, mercantile, with the one ambition of taking its revenge on the Germans. And as the shaky new Third Republic grew increasingly reactionary and moralistic, Flaubert’s spirits sank lower still. ‘Two things sustain me,’ he told a correspondent, ‘love of Literature and hatred of the bourgeois, the latter being resumed, condensed, nowadays, in what is called the Great Party of Order.’ Brown sums him up politically as an ‘élitist republican’, but if he was a republican, it was purely faute de mieux. He was fiercely anti-democratic and an elitist of the Platonic persuasion, once confessing to George Sand: ‘The one reasonable thing (which I always come back to) is a government of mandarins, provided the mandarins know something, or indeed know a great many things.’ The 1870s weren’t good years for closet mandarins.

Worse, however, for Flaubert than the state of the nation was the state of his finances. He had handed the management of these over to Ernest Commanville, his niece Caroline’s husband, who owned a timber business. Towards Caroline he was positively parental, displaying much affection which was seldom returned; her husband he had never liked though he was willing to trust him with his money. But Ernest’s business failed and Flaubert, with extraordinary generosity, came to the rescue, at great cost to his own comfort and peace of mind. As his income sank almost to nothing, offers were made of a sinecure in a Paris library, a dole that went against the grain but which he finally agreed to. What with that, and money also from his brother, he was able to go on writing his last novel, which, as if reflecting his declining circumstances, becomes less farcical and more bitter the longer it goes on.

In the course of writing his greatest book, L’Education sentimentale, Flaubert expressed a fear that ‘the milieu in which my characters disport themselves is so teeming and copious that on every page they risk being swallowed by it.’ The fear is one we are ourselves likely to feel when faced by a biography as substantial and as densely informative as Frederick Brown’s. Brown, however, has not allowed the milieu to swallow his principal character, even if he fills in rather more than he strictly needed to of the political history of Flaubert’s lifetime. On the cultural history and the writer’s place in it he is unfailingly good, as he is on Flaubert’s strong social life during those months of the year he spent in Paris; its often exuberant nature needs to be set against the impression many still have that the self-designated homme-plume did nothing but agonise in seclusion over the rhythms and exactness of his prose. Flaubert had only the one more than passing sexual liaison in his life, with Louise Colet, and Brown covers it beautifully: how better to sum up the writer’s state as he backed away from this demanding and theatrical woman than as one of ‘sepulchral detachment’?

This is a biography, praise be, that sees no need to speculate as to what Flaubert or anyone else’s state of mind might have been at a particular moment. It sticks to what can be known for sure. And there is a lot that can be known for sure about Flaubert’s daily life, daily thoughts and daily mood-swings, thanks to the wonderful letters he never stopped writing to a great variety of correspondents, literary and other. These letters – vigorous, candid, often extremely funny even when he is at his most pessimistic – add up to the most honest and entertaining primary source that any biographer could ever hope to work from. The long-delayed fifth and final volume of his correspondence, in the superlative Pléiade edition, is due to be published next spring. My book of 2007, should anyone come asking.