Maurice Nadeau

The Greatness of Flaubert


Bouvard and Pécuchet

FLAUBERT had not finished Bouvard et Pécuchet when he died suddenly on May 8, 1880 in his study at Croisset, just as he was getting ready to go to Paris.

Like La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the “story of the two clerks” was “the work of his whole life.” He had had the idea for it in his youth, and he had devoted his last ten years to it. They were the most difficult and exhausting years. What would the book have been like if it had been finished? We can only conjecture, and sift the various possibilities.

Caroline Commanville published it in April 1881, having copied out Flaubert’s notes for a “last chapter.” This “last chapter” makes a convincing enough epilogue to his two heroes’ adventures: discouraged by the failure of their experiments, they decide to go back to “copying as before”* and find happiness in returning to their former occupation. In so doing they say goodbye to the world which has disappointed them and trampled down their naive ambitions. They have not been able to live in accordance with morality and justice, using reason as their guide and applying the treasures of the accumulated knowledge of mankind. Like both Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale, Bouvard et Pécuchet is on its own plane a novel of irremediable failure. In it Flaubert attacks even more fiercely than before humanity, the world, and life; what emerges most specifically is man’s weakness.

The novel appeared first serialized in reviews, then in book form, but provoked little comment. In the year since his death, much had been said about Flaubert and his work, and people

*The words “as before” (comme autrefois) were added by Flaubert’s niece. See Alberto Cento’s critical edition of Bouvard et Pécuchet (Naples and Paris, 1964).


thought they knew what to think about both. For Barbey d’Aurevilly, Bouvard et Pécuchet confirmed the image of an “impotent” writer who had wallowed in “vulgarity” and “baseness” and who in his last work sometimes attained the “odious” and “disgusting.” Barbey was not sure that if Flaubert were alive he would have wanted to publish the book, the appearance of which was due to the greed of the “jackals of posthumous literature.” Some of Flaubert’s friends were embarrassed. They could not make out why he had devoted the last ten years of his life to a work whose significance escaped them, and which seemed to be outside the bounds of the novel, perhaps even of literature itself. As for the established critics of the time, they remained prudently silent.

 “An Affirmation of the Universal Stupidity”

BEFORE Bouvard was published, Zola (to whom Flaubert had spoken about it) said: “According to the author, Bouvard et Pécuchet is meant to be to the modern world what La Tentation de Saint Antoine is to the world of antiquity: a negation of every thing, or rather an affirmation of the universal stupidity.”

Maupassant expounded more fully. “It is a review of all the sciences as they appear to two minds which are fairly lucid, but undistinguished and simple. It is . . . above all a prodigious critique of all scientific systems, set one against the other, destroying one another through contradictions of fact or through contradictions in laws which are accepted without examination. It is the story of the weakness of the human intelligence . . . the eternal and universal stupidity.” Maupassant, too, compares it with Saint Antoine: “What Flaubert had done for the old religions and philosophies . . . he did again for all modern learning.” The book showed “the uselessness of effort, the futility of assertion, and always the eternal poverty of everything.”

Maupassant based his views on a fact that was known to Flaubert’s niece but which she did not mention. This was the existence, in addition to the novel proper, of a “shattering” collection of stupid remarks and observations, a “mountain of


notes left too scattered and unorganized ever to be published in their entirety.” According to Maupassant this “dossier of human folly” was to have formed the “crown . . . conclusion . . . and dazzling justification” of the novel. He reproduced the main chapter headings and some samples: slips, blunders, absurd periphrases, and other howlers perpetrated by philosophers and writers, some of them very illustrious. He says this was the material which the two “copyists” were to copy out. “Flaubert intended ... to make a whole volume out of this material. To make the collection of absurdities lighter and less tedious, he would have interspersed it with two or three stories in a vein of poetic idealism, these also copied out by Bouvard and Pécuchet.”

Maupassant knew what he was talking about, and exegetists and commentators might have saved themselves a lot of trouble in the last eighty years if they had paid attention to what he said, Maupassant is categorical: the book as published lacks not only one chapter—the chapter copied out by Caroline Commanville—but also a second volume, a second part probably equivalent in length to the first, which would have “crowned” the whole structure and been its “dazzling justification.” Maxime Du Camp repeats and confirms this in his Souvenirs littéraires: “The book which death did not leave him time to finish and which has been published under the title of Bouvard et Pécuchet has only one volume. But Flaubert intended it to have two.” And Du Camp, like Maupassant, says this second volume was to have been “a collection of supporting documents justifying the first.” Du Camp was pleased this second volume had not in fact appeared: it would have contained a dozen or so of his own expressions which Flaubert had described as “beautifully silly,” together with some bloomers by Flaubert himself. This “mountain of notes” is now in the Library in Rouen.

An Old Project: The Dictionary of Clichés

THE EXISTENCE of what, following Maupassant, has been called Le Sottisier (Jestbook), extracts of which have been published,


throws a strange light on what the real scope of Flaubert’s last work must have been. We recall a letter he wrote to Bouilhet from Damascus in 1850: “You do well to think about the Dictionnaire des Idées reçues. This book, properly got up and preceded by a preface in due form, explaining that the object was to recommend tradition, order, and universal convention, and set out in such a way that the reader doesn’t know whether his leg is being pulled or not, might make an unusual piece of work—maybe a successful one too, for it would be completely topical.” It appears from this that it was a project the two friends had in common; they had probably begun to carry it out.

Two years later, while he was working at Madame Bovary, Flaubert came back to his “old idea” and told Louise Colet about it.

I sometimes have frightful itchings to slate the human race, and I’ll do it some day ten years hence, in some long, wide-ranging novel. Meanwhile, an old idea has come back to me, my Dictionnaire des Idées reçues (do you know what that is?). The preface especially excites me, and the way I see it (it would be a whole book) no law could touch me although I’d attack everything. It would be a historical glorification of everything that is approved of. I’d show that majorities have always been right, and minorities always wrong. I’d sacrifice the great men to all the imbeciles, the martyrs to all the executioners, and all this in a far-fetched and pyrotechnical style . . . This apology for all aspects of human scurviness, ironical and vehement throughout, full of quotations, proofs (which prove the opposite), and hair-raising extracts (that’ll be easy), would profess as its object the finishing off once for all of every kind of eccentricity. I should thereby join up with the modern democratic idea of equality, and Fourier’s dictum that great men will become superfluous. And this, I shall say, is the object with which the book was written. It would therefore contain, in alphabetical order and on every possible subject, all you need to say in public to pass for a decent agreeable fellow . . .

After giving a few examples, he concludes: “The whole book must not contain a single word of my own invention, so that once anyone has read it he’ll be afraid to utter, for fear of letting out one of the phrases in it.”


Flaubert did write the Dictionnaire, or at least part of it. He made use of it for both Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale, and one can form an almost complete idea of it from the published extracts of Le Sottisier. But a question remains: is Bouvard et Pécuchet to be taken as the “preface” of which Flaubert spoke to Bouilhet, or as the “long, wide-ranging novel” he mentioned to Louise Colet?

Another Project: the Story of Two Clerks

FLAUBERT GOT THE IDEA of writing the story of “two clerks” after Salammbô, while he was hesitating between various projects, one of which became LEducation sentimentale. In a notebook which Mme Marie-Jeanne Durry published in 1950, he sketched portraits of Dumolard (or Dubolard)—“fat,” “fair curly hair,” based on “old Couillère,” a mayor of Trouville he had imitated in his youth—and Pécuchet, described as having a “pointed nose.” They meet on a bench in the Boulevard Bourdon, dream about the country, then go and live there and begin their “fruitless experiments.” Flaubert notes briefly: “Gardening, agriculture, politics, literature, history, socialism, metaphysics, religion, science, they try to adopt a child, education, two children, hoping to marry them off later.” He knows how it will all end: “In the copies, antithetical pictures—crimes of kings and peoples and their good deeds are sometimes difficult to distinguish.—Moral problem.” In 1863 he had already sketched the plan for Bouvard et Pécuchet and the Sottisier, which, though it would grow more complex, was not to be seriously modified.

No doubt he recalled L’Histoire naturelle, Genre commis, which he had published when he was fifteen in Le Colibri; he may well also have remembered a short story by Barthélemy Maurice called Les Deux Greffiers, published twice in 1841 (in La Gazette des Tribunaux and in Le Journal des Journaux) and reprinted in 1858 in L'Audience. It was the story of two clerks who retire with their wives to Touraine to live as they please. They undertake various unsatisfactory experiments in hunting, fishing, and


gardening, have “words,” return on the sly to their “copying,” and confess that “their sole pleasure is to resume, in make-believe, the arid task which for thirty-eight years had been the occupation and, perhaps without their knowing it, the happiness of their lives.”

Flaubert never mentioned Maurice’s story either in his letters or in conversation. When Daudet, after his death, discovered what he took to be the “source” of Bouvard et Pécuchet he told Edmond de Goncourt about it in confidence. Goncourt, in his Journal, did not beat about the bush. He expressed astonishment “that Flaubert had not been restrained by the knowledge that some day or other this sort of plagiarism would be discovered”. Another disciple of little faith went one better: Goncourt notes that Henry Céard says “Le Candidat is taken outright from Une Journée d'Elections by Lezay-Marnésia, and that everything is there, even the romantic journalist.” Since then, fortunately, people have read Les Deux Greffiers first-hand, and Descharmes and Dumesnil have made a detailed analysis of Une Journée d’Elections. And Flaubert’s shade can rest in peace. He certainly read Maurice’s story, but at the most it only served to remind him of his old project, confided long ago to Du Camp, of writing the “story of two clerks,” or perhaps even provided him with a background. He was in so little haste to “plagiarize” that after having made a few notes in 1863 he decided the idea was not yet ripe enough and turned to L’Education sentimentale. He returned to the project in 1870, before the desire to rewrite La Tentation prevailed once more over anything new.

Perhaps the Tentation was a necessary preliminary, perhaps he had to deal with ancient follies before depicting modern ones. At all events the old project began to be translated into fact after the third version of the Tentation, and in 1872 he told George Sand he would like both books to appear at the same time. That was one of his reasons for holding back publication of Saint Antoine: “I’m working on one now which could, be a companion-piece to it. . . a modern novel, forming a counterpart to Saint Antoine, which will lay claim to being comic.” While for him the two books are to be “quite different,” he still considers


them as part of the same purpose. Both are to be against “stupidity.”

Preparatory Labor

WHEN La Tentation was finished in July 1872, Flaubert embarked on a “colossal” program of reading in order to bone up on all the subjects in which his heroes were to plunge, and also so that he himself should know the “last word” on the various sciences, from the philosophy of medicine to ethics and metaphysics, taking in on the way all the diverse branches of knowledge suggested by circumstance, chance, and the two students’ desire to be encyclopedic. Flaubert devoted two years to this reading, interrupting it only to attend to Bouilhet’s affairs and to write Le Candidat. He “ruined” himself buying books, spent days in the Bibliothèque Impériale and the library at Rouen, and borrowed books from them to use at home. In June 1874 he told Mme Roger des Genettes he had read 294 volumes; six years later the figure was “over 1,500.” And according to the most recent commentators this figure is probably an under-estimate.

The object of all this reading was to compile, as he had announced long ago, “une encyclopédie critique en farce” (a burlesque critical encyclopedia), or in other words to assemble, listed under authors and subjects, as many howlers, contradictions, and absurdities as possible, committed by people of serious reputation. The reader was thus to be convinced of the nothingness of the human intelligence, of “Veternelle misère de tout (the eternal poverty of everything).” While the failure of two minds which are avowedly “simple” and even “undistinguished” and yet “fairly lucid” is due in part to their own “lack of method,” it constitutes even more the failure of science, unable to give clear, intelligible, and sound explanations of the world, history, and human actions. Just like the old religions and philosophies, science, for all its pretensions, is foiled by the unknowable. It has replaced fables, myths, and visions by explanations scarcely less fantastic, and often just as dependent on self-interest, opinion, and convention. It has substituted for the old


fanaticisms new obligations to believe, and, as it claims to be based on reason, its laws and decrees are heavy with threats. It leads straight to the barracks of industrialism, to a “pignouflisme universel,” universal oafishness.

The Breath of Wrath

FLAUBERT WAS NOT in any frame of mind to carry out this inquiry coolly and objectively. On the contrary, his principles of impassivity seem to have been undermined by the defeat of 1870, inflicted by “educated men” and “scientists” in uniform, sacking and slaying; by the insurrection of the Communards, whom Flaubert dismissed as “mad dogs”; by his numerous bereavements, especially the death of his mother; and by his disgust for his contemporaries and congenital hatred of the “bourgeois.” Gone was the time of the impersonal artist, reigning throughout his work like God in Creation. Now, from the top of his ivory tower, he meant to “spit on his contemporaries.”

A few days in a single month in 1872 show him sharpening up his weapons. “I’m pondering something in which I’ll breathe forth my wrath,” he writes to Mme Roger des Genettes. “Yes, at last I’ll get rid of what’s choking me. I’ll spew out on my contemporaries the contempt they inspire in me even if I break my ribs in the attempt. It will be vast and violent . . .” The same day he writes to his friend Mme Brainne:

Tout cela dans Vunique but de cracher sur mes contemporains le dégoût qu’ils m’inspirent. Je vais enfin dire ma manière de penser, exhaler mon ressentiment, vomir ma haine, expectorer mon fiel, éjaculer ma colère, déterger mon indignation—et je dédierai mon bouquin aux mânes de saint Polycarpe . . . (And all this with the sole object of spitting out on to my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me. At last I’m going to say what I think, exhale my resentment, spew forth my hatred, expectorate my spleen, ejaculate my anger, deterge my indignation—and I shall dedicate my book to the shade of Saint Polycarp . . .)

And he continues:

Mais avant de crever, ou plutôt en attendant une crevaison, je désire “vuider” le fiel dont je suis plein. Donc je prépare mon vomissement.


Il sera copieux et amer, je t’en réponds . . . (But before I croak, or rather in the meantime, I want to void the spleen that fills me. So I’m preparing my vomit. It will be copious and bitter, I can tell you . . .)

People have been surprised that this “wrath,” this “hatred,” this “spleen,” were channelled into a story evoking laughter, even though the comedy is sometimes sinister; they have been surprised that the “vomit” turned out to be a jest-book arousing amusement rather than indignation. Is it that we have become more tolerant, or blase? Do we not now regard as a cliché the fact that the human mind is fallible, and that truth is sometimes revealed through the accumulation of error? Might it not be that Flaubert, who often makes his heroes his spokesmen, is almost as naive as they?

And yet Bouvard et Pécuchet really is “le livre des vengeances” that was promised. Its revenge is subtle: by insidious inlets it seeps into the reader’s mind and saps the foundations of both the commonest and the most grandiose ideas. The artist has played a part, adding to what might have been just a lampoon several extra dimensions which transcend the author’s original intentions and the time and place of the writing, stretching across eighty years to link up with our present preoccupations. If, like many a masterpiece, Bouvard et Pécuchet remains an enigma, this is not for the reasons alleged by its contemporaries, but because its author depicted in it a mystery which is part of the human condition.

A Long Journey

OUR BEST PROOF that the artist prevailed over the man of resentment and wrath comes two years later in the letter Flaubert wrote to Turgenev on July 25, 1874, when he was confronting the actual writing of his “infernal” book: “I feel I’m about to embark on a very long journey, a journey to unknown regions from which I shall never return.” He had felt the same about the previous “long journeys,” those of Madame Bovary, Salammbô, and L’Education sentimentale. Once again, although his plan was


perfectly clear, he was setting out for the unknown; he even had a presentiment of the fact that he would not come back. This “anchors aweigh!” is absolutely typical of the Flaubert we admire as man and as artist; for him it had always been something more than just a departure for literature. If he died in harness, it was because his task was also an exacting and ambitious quest, which literally wore him out.

About the book which he intended to be comic he wrote to Turgenev: “One could make it into something serious and even appalling.” To his niece he wrote: “The difficulties of this book are frightful. I’m capable of passing out in harness.” Can he really be talking of the fairly simple story of his two clerks? “This book is diabolical!” he wrote to Caroline on another occasion. And to George Sand: “You’d have to be absolutely crazy to take on a book like this. I’m afraid it may be, in its very conception, fundamentally impossible . . . Ah, if I brought it off! . . . what a dream!” Months, years went by, and it was always the same: the “cursed,” “infernal,” “horrible” book sometimes “dazzles him by its immense scope,” sometimes makes him tremble and seems to yawn beneath him like a “gulf that grows wider at every step.” In 1878 he told Mme Brainne: “It’s something so audacious I could completely break my back at it.”

What was all this really about? It was about an attempt which no artist before him had dared to make with the same rigor and the same method: it attacked what had been the private preserve of philosophers, reformers, and moralists, and did indeed seem an “impossible” venture. Where others had made people laugh at individuals and their follies, vices, and absurdities, Flaubert wanted to make comedy out of the thoughts and ideas which constituted the common stock of contemporary life. It was no longer a matter of making the reader laugh at the expense of his neighbor, but of taking the gentle reader himself as the target, and forcing him, if he wants to avoid branding himself a coward, into a profound self-examination. By placing the reader on various roads to knowledge which all end in an impasse, Flaubert aims at forcing him back on his own lazy


or frivolous retreats, driving him back on question marks, and making him admit that what he took to be true is neither certain nor sound nor even very reasonable. He wanted to sow so much doubt in his mind that he would even doubt his own existence. He told Mme Brainne that his “secret aim” was “to disconcert the reader so much that he goes crazy (ahurir tellement le lecteur qu’il en deviennefou).” But he had not reckoned with men’s power to delude themselves and their capacity for indifference. And indeed these qualities had to exist for his book to be regarded as comic, for his critical encyclopedia to be taken as a “burlesque.” And Flaubert’s hatred of humanity was not so great that he could not offer it two scapegoats, and let it have a comfortable laugh at Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Out of His Depth

IN MAY 1875 Flaubert was swept out of his depth: when he heard of the Commanvilles’ débâcle and his own ruin he let his bitterness overflow. Then, at Concarneau, he wrote Saint Julien l’Hospitaliery and, back in control again, spent 1876 and the beginning of 1877 writing Un Coeur simple and Hérodias.The Trois Contes were well received, and it was in quite good spirits that he returned to his “deux bonshommes.” As early as March he was writing to Mme Roger des Genettes: “This evening, at last, I’ve put back on my desk the files on my big interrupted novel, and I’m going to try to resume my task.” He was not to leave it again until his death.

His problems were of all kinds. Of documentation in the first place. Also of the distribution of material, for his two heroes had to make a more or less comprehensive tour of human knowledge in a sequence which would both seem natural and be of mounting difficulty. There was also the problem of literary organization: for Flaubert intended to write a real novel, with interesting characters and situations, and with its theme not weakened but reinforced by chance, surprise, and accident.

The preparatory labor was enormous. The papers he left have only recently been seriously interpreted. They contain no fewer


than seven complete and detailed synopses, and there are a large number of break-downs for different chapters to be devoted to some particular science or branch of learning. When they were published in 1964 these papers ran to nearly three hundred large printed pages. They show Flaubert mastering the knowledge his two heroes were to attempt, forming an opinion about the way the various “authorities” distinguished themselves, and drawing his own conclusions before handing over the reins to the two clerks. Flaubert had to possess the critical approach which Bouvard and Pécuchet lacked in order that they might happen at the right moment on the howler or inconsistency or evasion which evokes their indignation or surprise. It is then that they turn, disappointed and disgusted, to another subject. At the risk of some implausibility, Flaubert had to save time by prompting them with his own conclusions. It has often been asked whether they expressed Flaubert's opinions. The answer seems practically certain when we read in one of the synopses: “They may . . . after making a study, formulate their opinion(=mine) by desiderata in the form of axioms.”

And yet they are absurd, and there is no doubt that Flaubert intended them to be so. But “they are not just a couple of imbeciles,” he wrote in the original plan of the novel. And it is true that in addition to their touching zeal and thirst for knowledge they have preoccupations which are not at all ignoble. Flaubert saw them as “having many feelings and embryonic ideas which they find it hard to express.” He adds that “by the very fact of their contact with one another they develop.” They are not the same at the end of the novel as at the beginning. Their new attitude towards the people of Chavignolles arises from the fact that they have developed, and come to understand a certain number of things.

The Discovery of Stupidity

WHAT MAKES US LAUGH just as much as their “lack of method” is their ever-renewed and always ill-rewarded enthusiasm, their


indefatigable patience, in short their belief that the vast realm of knowledge is open to them, without any previous apprenticeship, by mere virtue of the fact that they want to explore it. They suffer from the drawback of all autodidacts, or rather from the even more widespread ill of average humanity, which, unable to go back to the originals, has to fall back on popularizers, the general opinion, clichés, idées reçues. It is in fact the authors of textbooks, catechisms, summaries and treatises that Flaubert is fustigating—the dogmatism, intolerance, and conformism of all these popularizers and pseudo-savants. If Bouvard and Pécuchet are ridiculous for growing melons according to the precepts of a book on gardening, when in such a case experience and practice are at least as important as knowledge, they are excusable when they follow the “distinguished” intellects who undertake to reveal to them the mysteries of the various religious, philosophical, and metaphysical systems. Copyists by profession, they are disposed to believe what they are told, and the printed word has for them religious force. They are outraged by the way people ill-use the truth, which for them becomes more and more elusive, until they finally doubt, despite the assertions of the authors they have consulted, whether it exists at all. In short, they discover that life is not at all like what the books say.

They arrive at this discovery through their reading itself, and through the comparison they are obliged to make, say, between the teachings of Christianity and the behavior of the Abbé Jeufroy, or between the ethical precepts of Foureau and what he does. They see those who possess knowledge and power, the local worthies, acting in contradiction to their convictions and the ideas they profess, and obeying instead self-interest, fear, and received opinion. Once they have perceived this complacent and aggressive form of stupidity, it is not long before they are unable to “bear” it. And at the thought of there being “other Coulons, others Marescots, and other Foureaus from here to the antipodes,” they feel as if “the weight of the whole earth” is bearing down on them. They had made such progress, according to their author, that “their evident superiority was


offensive.” They then ceased to be harmless and became subversive, and the gendarmes were sent after them.

Whatever had been their methods of acquiring knowledge, and though each time they started from scratch without having learned anything from sad experience, they did end up by penetrating the mystery of a world based on quite other realities than ideas, ethics, and knowledge. By dint of trapping in their humble snares a truth which always evaporates, leaving in its stead a doubt so agonizing that they think of killing them- selves, they end by emerging into a certainty with which they arm themselves to bring about the rule of justice. At this ante- penultimate stage of the novel they are touching rather than ridiculous. Their good-will and naivety, which might almost be called a love of the absolute, have saved them. They return to their copying because the world which oppresses them is too heavy to be lifted. They do as Flaubert has done: they shut themselves up in their ivory tower, and avenge themselves by cataloguing, with a sort of morose delectation, all the stupidities they have ever read or heard of.

An Osmosis

DESPITE HIS DETAILED SCENARIOS telling the story from A to Z before it was actually written, Flaubert was unable to withhold from his two heroes the same sympathy which had led him to side with Emma and Frédéric. This time the characters he created were very distant from himself; he meant to make people laugh at them; their way of life was one of those he abominated most, yet he could not help raising them to the level of his own concerns, and launching them as executors of justice, latter-day Don Quixotes against the windmills of Chavignolles. Dressed up as archaeologists, mesmerists, or utopian socialists, armed with textbooks and pamphlets, they recall the Knight of the Woeful Countenance spurring his steed into action, lance in hand and lettuce on head. Don Quixote believed in the romances of chivalry: Bouvard and Pécuchet believe in science. The absurdity and illusion are the same,


except that Flaubert’s contemporaries scarcely realized it, worshipping as they did the same idol of a positivist age, and thinking to find the answer to all their questions in the unlimited progress of science.

The distance Flaubert set between himself and his characters dwindled as the work advanced. “I’m afraid of having exhausted my brain,” he wrote in 1874. “It may be that I’m too full of my subject, and the stupidity of my two heroes is invading me.” Again in 1875 he says he is “invaded” by them, “to such a degree that I’ve become them. Their stupidity is mine and it’s killing me.” He was, in fact, beginning to resemble them. In naivety: he said that if he brought off his novel the earth “would not be worthy” to bear it. In harking after the absolute: “If I succeed it will, seriously, be the highest peak of Art.” He had become them because they had become him, like Emma and Frédéric. Though they were absurd characters, laughably credulous, they gradually became his spokesmen; when the novel was almost finished, they even became his executors! In 1880 he told Auguste Sabatier that Bouvard et Pécuchet was his “testament”—“a résumé of my experience and my judgment on man and the works of man.” He conveyed his last wishes to posterity through the two clerks. How much black humor there was in their story is suggested by his remark to Du Camp: he said he wanted “to produce such an impression of lassitude and ennui that in reading the book one might think it had been written by a cretin.”

A Nameless Work

“A PURELY philosophical work. Nothing could be less like a novel,” wrote Henry Céard when Bouvard et Pécuchet was published. He was right, if one thinks in terms of Madame Bovary or L’Education sentimentale. Flaubert seems to have given up wanting to “represent life” in a certain way or according to a certain aesthetic,* and although he still pays a modicum of

* Though he said he wanted to “return to the novel” when he had finished Bouvard et Pécuchet, and indeed had two or three projects for novels in mind.


attention to realism and verisimilitude, he is less concerned with the psychological evolution of each of his heroes than with their shared intellectual adventures. That was his theme and he stuck to it. Bouvard and Pécuchet are only “typical” in so far as they represent average humanity. Their actual case is exceptional. And in order to lend it scope, the author has to abstract them from the world, life, and their own individuality, leaving the traditional raw material of the novel in the background and making it serve as a touchstone or foil. When Bouvard and Pécuchet return to the world their adventures—and the novel— are almost over. The same is true of Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote. Bouvard and Pécuchet have even lived outside time: according to the dates given in the novel, they are about to embark on a new life at the age of eighty-five. Historical events such as the 1848 revolution and the coup d’état of December 2 punctuate a lapse of time of much longer duration. In a way, everything has taken place in their heads. Is it not because they are dreamers that life has confounded them so calamitously? “There is probably no name for my book in any language,” Flaubert said. It might perhaps be called a philosophical novel, or a conte, but the question is of no importance. Once again, Flaubert was attempting something different from before. And Bouvard et Pécuchet, because of the encyclopedic sweep of its subject and the urgent and fundamental questions it poses, takes its place naturally by the side of the Odyssey, Pantagruel, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe, all of them unclassifiable works which succeeding generations interrogate each in their own way, and which remain permanent sources of warmth and life, patiently abiding all question and all commentary.


ACCORDING to Paul Bourget, Bouvard and Pécuchet suffer from a disease which gets worse as their century wears on: excess of thought, intellectualism. They symbolize the human race “playing with thought like a child playing with poison.” Instead of staying within their class, sticking to their last, and being content


to live according to their instincts, they take it into their heads to meddle with the dangerous substance which, as Mme Flaubert told her son, “dries up the heart.” In Bourget’s view, this was the disease which afflicted Flaubert himself. He wanted to be an “intellectual,” he had never known “love, happy and fulfilled effusion, the soft abandonment of hope.” He was ignorant of “happiness of the strict observance, the serenity of moral and religious obedience.” The sin for which Flaubert was punished was that of wanting to think for himself. Happiness in life, like the happiness of the soul, resided in obedience to the beliefs and opinions of the community, and it was vanity and folly to want to do otherwise.

Jules de Gaultier, who had invented and worked out the idea of “Bovaryisme,” also thought the two copyists were wrong to harbor thoughts which were above them. Like Emma, they aimed at what was beyond them and ended up living in illusion. They “symbolize humanity,” and exhibit “the enormous disproportion between the goals the human mind sets itself and the results of its researches.” Flaubert had written not so much an epic of stupidity as an epic of intelligence, always fallible and never still.

Emile Faguet contented himself with considering the book from the point of view of literature. For him it was a “roman manqué,” and, worse still, “boring.” Flaubert was justly punished for his “pride,” and it was a good thing he had died before the book was finished, for it would have been very painful to him to see it fall so far short of his hopes.

So opinions differed. Strangely enough, comment on the book tended to take the form of glosses, as if the disease Bouvard and Pécuchet suffered from was contagious. Critics took refuge in general or pseudo-philosophical ideas, or converted these into considerations dictated by circumstance or the opinion of the moment. Bouvard et Pécuchet is a mirror both for readers and for critics, and the latter, though they have often enough looked in it, have rarely shown the cautiousness of Albert Thibaudet, who suspected that any judgment passed on Flaubert’s last work was itself a likely candidate for the Sottisier. He saw in this a proof


of the book’s “plasticity” and “validity.” In fact the novel is a snare for critics; they infallibly get caught up in its toils, as in those of Ulysses (Joyce owed much to Flaubert and to Bouvard et Pécuchet in particular) and of the novels of Kafka, another of Flaubert’s admirers. Perhaps it is wisest just to say, with Remy de Gourmont, that “Bouvard et Pécuchet is amusing in the profoundest sense of the word,” but that not everyone can appreciate it. It is “pre-eminently a book for the strong, for it has much bitterness in it, and its whiff of the void strikes right home.”

Not even all Flaubert enthusiasts have liked the book. Some have said that since it was unfinished it should not have been published. Others have praised it lavishly, while secretly regretting that Flaubert did not go as far as Jarry, for example, in his satire. In any case, how was one to see, in this combination of diagram and caricature, the highly subtle author of Madame Bovary, or the painter of the Education’s intermittences of the heart? Not until the “literary reign of terror” about a quarter of a century ago did it become fashionable to admire only Bouvard et Pécuchet among all Flaubert’s works. But although traces of this attitude still persist, the two clerks are not colorful enough to be the figureheads of a new movement. And who could love them for themselves, or draw lessons in conduct from their behavior? Although they are heroic, they are anti-heroes par excellence.

A Course of Modesty

AMONG OUR CONTEMPORARIES only a Bouvard-et-Pécuchetist of long standing, whose admiration dates from before the “terror,” has dared to say straight out that Bouvard et Pécuchet is “one of the master works of Western literature,” comparable, in its relation to the modern world and its concerns, to what the Odyssey was to Ancient Greece. According to Raymond Queneau, author of Les Enfants du Limon and Exercices de Style, just as Ulysses does something more than catalogue the countries of the Mediterranean basin, so Bouvard and Pécuchet do


something more than catalogue human knowledge. They believe in “the absolute validity of the human mind confronted with phenomena,” in a strict correlation between the capacity to know and the material to be explored; and to perceive that the two only encounter each other by chance fills them with rage and disgust. Through their experiments they learn not so much their own limits as the limits of the human condition.

Queneau does not see Flaubert as a declared enemy of science, and this corresponds with what we ourselves have learned of him. He is on the same side as science in so far as it is “skeptical, reserved, methodical, prudent, and humane,” in so far as it does not show the arrogance of things exclusively of the mind. What he attacks—with less chance than in the Tentation of making allies and friends—are the dogmatists who claim, as he wrote a few months before he died, to have “le bon Dieu (ou le non Dieu)” in their pocket, and who take their stand on a single explanation of things. For him they are “ignoramuses . . . charlatans . . . idiots” who see only one side of things and never the whole, and because they have committed the “ineptitude of drawing conclusions” they seek to impose their solutions on their contemporaries and dominate over them. To ensnare them in their own blunders and absurdities is more than a healthy amusement; it is a necessary measure of hygiene.

It may be that Flaubert, an admirer of the East writing under the eye of his big porcelain Buddha, intended Bouvard et Pécuchet to give to mankind a course of modesty à la Zen.

SOURCE: Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert, translated by Barbara Bray (New York, Library Press, 1972), chapter 17: pp. 261-279.

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