Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book: Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

I was unsure about "Bouvard and Pecuchet" when I learned that Flaubert passed away before completing the novel. However, I am glad for having read it: it is a wonderful oddity, an encyclopaedic tour de force that baffles and bemuses. Also, like Don Quixote, it is a book that leaves you unsure about how to feel about the two protagonists.

Flaubert’s survey of the state of knowledge and thinking at the time is a mighty feat; it is said that he read over 1,500 books for the task. As for what the author was trying to achieve with B&P, Wikipedia provides the following quote:

…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!"

Bouvard and Pecuchet start of as two copyists who strike up a friendship. When one of them falls into wealth, they decide to move to the countryside to live the good life. Everything they need to know they can learn from books, courses, etc.  

This is the setting for the tragi-comedy and the rest of the chapters sees the pair falling over themselves to acquire every scrap of academic knowledge to make their understanding complete, in an effort to make a success of their ventures. However, they do not learn from their mistakes, their executions are ill considered, and any successes they enjoy are down to luck. They are given to endless diversions, which means their knowledge on any one topic is rarely anything beyond superficial, and they either ignore the people around them (villagers, farmers, etc), or fall into heated arguments with them (there is a classic argument with a local doctor early on in the novel).

Over the course of the story, Bouvard and Pecuchet form opinions and make muddled in-roads into an endless stream of disciplines, including the likes of: agriculture, chemistry, medicine, physiology, astronomy, veterinary science, brewing, geology, architecture, history and literature (including attempts to write plays).

Their buffoonery is amusing, and the pair’s passion, dogged determination and insatiable zest to keep learning (albeit superficially) is admirable. Nevertheless, the two men are idiots in the sense that they never learn from their mistakes and so are quick to lose their way, over and over, with one disaster following another disaster, never appreciating the flux state of knowledge and always, as the sleeve of the book puts it, ‘wanting to conclude’ in matters where truth is a shifting quantity..”

The second part of the book is the excellent Dictionary of Received Ideas, which is a book in itself and will be looked at separately.  

I will also post some choice fragments from B&P in coming posts.


B&P gets an extra half a star as it serves as a rare warning shot, telling reader to be wary of trying to acquire impossible truths that may not exist, and also not to get over one’s heads in the world of knowledge acquisition, a trap we can so easily fall into now that we have the internet at our disposal.

Confession: I’m not saying I see elements of B&P buffoonery in myself, but my plan for the weekend includes researching the biological role of caffeine and its withdrawal symptoms, an investigation into the latest thinking on willpower, and the current position on epigenetics. I also have many thousands of internet bookmarks and many hundreds of books to read on my Amazon WishList.

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