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Flaubert, C’est Moi

Bouvard and Pécuchet

by Gustave Flaubert, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, with a preface by Raymond Queneau
Dalkey Archive, 328 pp., $13.95

One of these animal freaks—a five-legged sheep—illustrates both Flaubert’s egregious tastes and his dogged, retentive nature. He first came across it on his walking tour of Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in the spring of 1847. At the Guérande fair they encountered “the young phenomenon,” as it was advertised—the phrase delighting Flaubert as much as the animal itself. After visiting the sheep in its tent, Flaubert and Du Camp invited its owner to dine with them, and they all got drunk together. As they traveled on, Gustave started calling his friend Maxime “the young phenomenon.” Later, at Brest, they fell in with the sheep and its owner again, and again got drunk with him.

This might have been enough for most people, but not for Flaubert. The following year, Du Camp was confined to bed in his Paris rooms after being wounded in the 1848 Revolution. Flaubert burst in and announced that he had a surprise for his friend. A short while later, he returned with the young phenomenon, which he had discovered at a fair and managed, with the aid of the showman, to maneuver up the stairs to Du Camp’s apartment. Flaubert was triumphant and buffoonish, Du Camp recalled in his memoirs; also eager to shock some elderly visitors in a neighboring room. After a quarter of an hour, the invalid tired of the ambulant sideshow, dismissed the beast and its owner, then had his room swept of ovine droppings. Flaubert, however, rarely tired of anything once it had lodged in his mind. “This joke,” Du Camp wrote, “clung to Flaubert’s memory as if it had been a deed of valor. A year before his death he reminded me of it, and laughed as much as upon the first day.”

What Du Camp writes about Flaubert has to be treated with a certain skepticism. He was the only close friend of Flaubert’s youth to survive him, and their long relationship had contained froideurs, fallings-out, suspicions, and jealousies. Flaubert disapproved of Du Camp’s worldliness (not that the author of Madame Bovary didn’t preen himself when high society in its turn took him up), of his facility, his journalism, his honors-seeking. When Du Camp was elected to the Académie française in February 1880, Flaubert—then only three months from death—wrote a typical letter of congratulation: “Your pleasure is mine, but I am nonetheless astonished, amazed, stupefied, and I wonder why you bothered.”

Du Camp, for his part, liked to present Flaubert as someone who regrettably never developed, who stuck all his life to the convictions and projects developed in early manhood, and whose determined clinging to the high ideals of art was a kind of unrealism and immaturity. Du Camp ascribed this partly to temperament—a Norman heaviness, as opposed to a Parisian dartingness—and partly to Flaubert’s epilepsy. It was Du Camp, in his Souvenirs littéraires of 1882, who first disclosed this long-kept secret, and who in doing so linked it to a literary verdict:

I am absolutely convinced that Flaubert was a writer of rare merit, and had he not been attacked by his terrible nervous illness he would have been a writer of genius.

A considered and honest judgment from the friend who first edited Madame Bovary for serial publication in the Revue de Paris and made Flaubert grudgingly cut at least thirty pages? Malice disguised as sympathy? Honest truth-telling of which Flaubert himself would have been proud? And/or medical reductivism of an all too frequent kind—the kind that once attributed George Sand’s feminism to her habit of smoking cigarettes (rather than attributing her smoking of cigarettes to her feminism)?

Flaubert’s epilepsy is one of those facts in a writer’s life which can be argued every way according to the prejudice of the arguer: as an explanation of style, as an intellectual hindrance, as a tactical ploy to evade life (Sartre). Frederick Brown treats it as a great crisis followed by a continuing, lifelong threat—and a continuing excuse for Mme Flaubert’s exercise of maternal control. He most usefully inserts into his narrative every known attack that Flaubert suffered, noting the social and medical consequences, but also noting that the condition did not interfere with the hours Flaubert worked, with the colossal labor of research and the ceaseless pursuit of style. Nor, for that matter, with his memory. Flaubert could recite poetry and prose from books he hadn’t opened in years, and had an almost photographic recall of where a particular line lay on the page.


Immediately before pronouncing final literary judgment on his old friend, Du Camp gives a typical example of Flaubert’s stuckness:

As early as the year 1843 he told me he wished to write the story of two copying clerks who, having inherited a small fortune, should hasten to quit their office and retire into the country. There, every attempt to form new interests was to fail, they were to be bored almost to death, and in self-defence to take to copying again, as in the days of their poverty, so as to dispel the emptiness and weariness of their lives.

He was finishing that novel when death came to interrupt him.

If we believe this account (which is at least more sober and more plausible than Du Camp’s “memory” of Flaubert overlooking the Second Cataract from the summit of Djebel-Aboukir and crying, “I have found it! Eureka! Eureka! I will call it ‘Emma Bovary’”), the gestation of Bouvard et Pécuchet took thirty years. But in any case, it is an ironic reminder of the different literary directions Flaubert’s and Du Camp’s lives had taken. While the former was finally getting down to that long-delayed novel, a work involving encyclopedic research—1,500 books, he claimed—and the last five years of his life, the latter had just finished publishing his own encyclopedic magnum opus, Paris: ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie (1869–1875). Here, over six volumes, Du Camp describes the entire workings of a modern city in the second half of the nineteenth century: from its sewers and postal service to its libraries and theaters, via prison and prostitution, the guillotine and the madhouse. Little escapes him, or fails to interest him: there are seventy pages, for instance, on tobacco, its manufacture, monopoly, advantages, and disadvantages. (Du Camp ends in optimistic fantasy, passing on to readers the nicotinists’ belief that any harmful effects of tobacco can be counteracted by black coffee, which is le contre-poison du tabac.) It is a work of the highest journalistic purpose, an anatomy and physiology, but also a celebration of the city, and a celebration of human resourcefulness and ingenuity; yet today, few except historians of Paris know it, let alone read it.

Bouvard et Pécuchet, by contrast, a work of the highest artistic purpose, is an encyclopedia of human endeavor with a directly opposite take—“the Baedeker of futility,” as Cyril Connolly called it. The novel is an exasperated assertion that human resourcefulness is usually directed at foolish projects, and human ingenuity an excuse for gross self-satisfaction. And though Bouvard et Pécuchet will never be as popular as Madame Bovary or L’Éducation sentimentale (it has at least overhauled Salammbô, currently way out of fashion), it is still stubbornly being read—and Mark Polizzotti’s supple and sprightly translation will doubtless find it a happy few more.

Stubbornness, indeed, pervades and surrounds this novel. It is about stubbornness—the indefatigable attempt by two retired Parisian clerks to master and subdue the whole of human knowledge, a task in which they persevere despite constant failure and discouragement. It represents a decades-long act of authorial stubbornness, a commitment made in the face of Flaubert’s own doubts and several friends’ wise discouragements. It is aesthetically stubborn in its constant refusal to grant readers the narrative flow they traditionally crave. And it requires a stubborn reader, one willing to suspend normal expectations and able to confront both repetitious effects and a vomitorium of predigested book-learning.

Young man’s rage is an invigorating condition, cleansing, cheering, self-assertive: hatred of the bourgeois seems indeed the beginning of all virtue. Old man’s rage is corrosive and pessimistic; it is a refusal to admit that you were wrong, combined with a refusal to admit that your best efforts, even if allowed to continue for a further thousand years, would probably have no impact on humanity. “Whatever else happens,” Flaubert commented at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, “we shall remain stupid.” This was not acceptance, but continued exasperation. He could never write, as George Sand did, “Poor dear stupidity, which I do not hate, and which I look upon with maternal eyes.” She also told him: “All you are complaining about is life…. You love literature too much. It will kill you and you will not kill human stupidity.”

There are various contenders for what did kill Flaubert—a heart attack (favored by Brown), a final epileptic seizure (favored by Brown’s immediate biographical predecessor, Geoffrey Wall), financial stress. But there was also literary stress, the monstrous task of research and regurgitation the novelist had committed himself to. Sand was correct to worry that literature might kill him. Perhaps Turgenev’s advice, sent from Moscow in 1874, was as much medical as critical: he thought Bouvard et Pécuchet was best treated presto, in a Voltairean or Swiftian fashion, in one sharp satirical burst. But this was never Flaubert’s mode.

There is, finally, something detached and seigneurial about satire. Flaubert was, despite his reputation, too close to the world, too thin-skinned, too constantly flayed. Also too stubborn. Sand was right to suspect that irritation had become “necessary to [his] organization.” Flaubert admitted to Edmond de Goncourt that indignation was the stick that held the puppet aloft; while to Mme Brainne in 1872, reckoning that he had two or three more years of research before he could begin writing the novel, he explained,

All this for the sole purpose of spitting out on my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me. I shall proclaim my way of thinking, exhale my resentment, vomit my hatred, expectorate my bile, ejaculate my anger, sluice out my indignation….

A writer’s statements about work in progress are often only a loose guide, and sometimes no more than an indication of difficulty and frustration. Lucian Freud once said that any remarks he might make about his art would have as much relation to his final paintings as the noise a tennis player emits when striking the ball has to the completed shot. With writers, comments ought to be more relevant, but are often just a means of letting off steam: Flaubert’s letters show his frequent exasperation with Emma Bovary, but this feeling is not allowed to infect the glittering machine he was in the process of constructing.

But then, the semi-apocryphal “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” is best understood as a throwaway joke by a writer trying to bat off an insistent question. Nearer the truth would have been “Bouvard et Pécuchet, c’est moi.” When he was fifteen, Flaubert won a school prize for a twenty-five-page essay on the history of mushrooms—all of which he had conscientiously copied out from another source. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s driven encyclopedism was his; and what they come ploddingly to doubt during the course of the novel—the probity of men, the virtue of women, the intelligence of governments, the good sense of the people, the innocence of children, the reliability of history, the progress of science—was what Flaubert himself doubted. As Rabbit is to Updike, a clownish, dimmer alter ego, so Bouvard and Pécuchet were to Flaubert; which is why, though they start the novel looking as if they are to be its butts, they end as deranged comic heroes, sub-Quixotic failures in their own heroic if absurd quest.

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