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.

Flaubert is much closer to the surface of Bouvard et Pécuchet than of any other novel he published. There are moments when what elsewhere would be insinuated via style indirect libre is here given as brute authorial judgment (“Art, on some occasions, can move mediocre spirits”). There are sly references to his old friend Jules Cloquet, to a sea captain called Barbey (he had known one such in Trouville in the 1830s), to his own unofficial patron saint, Polycarpe. But the way in which the author—far from being everywhere present and nowhere visible—shows through most regularly is in the very matter of the novel. Flaubert read, absorbed, eviscerated 1,500 books to make this novel; he took the knowledge and the pseudo-knowledge and the absurdities he found, processed them, and presented them in pellet form as the sometimes comprehending, sometimes incomprehending Bouvard and Pécuchet would have done—had they ever been capable of conceiving of such a project for themselves. The two clerks, as presented, might in their rustic retirement have tried their hands at farming, done a little ruin-gazing and antique-collecting, but would never—without different back-stories or characters—have started on, and seen through, such a project of learning. Flaubert’s explanation, that their falling into friendship kickstarts their intelligence, is a fictional device rather than a convincing piece of psychology.

This is a pedestrian, Pécuchetan objection, but not an invalid one. Faced with continuous summaries of scores of books, we do not think, “Gosh, what will these two decide to read next?” but rather “Where will Flaubert’s researches drive him next?” When Bouvard reads out to his friend “a note, which had demanded a lot of research on his part,” we whistle at that “his.” And when, after their attempt to produce a fatuous liqueur has ended in the explosion of their still, “they wondered what the cause could be of so many misfortunes, and especially this latest one,” the reader has the immediate answer: your creator, of course.

Yet the novel is not quite as implacable, as programmatic, as personal, as this makes it sound. It is livelier and funnier and much more peculiar. It is at once furiously specific and highly implausible (to make Bouvard and Pécuchet’s horticultural blunders would take far more growing seasons than Flaubert allots). It moves swiftly, even as it makes the same point again and again. It doesn’t just tell rather than show—it insists. It seems closely related to Madame Bovary (also provincial in setting, also saturated by failure), yet the times when it most reminds us of that first novel are when it most strays from its true purpose and manner.

At moments we are gulled into thinking Flaubert has missed a trick. For instance, after the 1848 Revolution, the inhabitants of Chavignolles decide to plant a liberty tree. Bouvard and Pécuchet supply a poplar from their farm, and in front of the assembled villagers, the fire brigade, and remnants of the National Guard, the priest blesses the tree (decked in red, white, and blue ribbons) and makes a speech. It could have been a parallel scene to the Comices in Madame Bovary, just as rich and grotesque. Yet Flaubert lets it all pass in under a page, and does not even allow the priest into direct speech: everything is reported, controlled, tamped down, made into example 23b of a Flaubertian demonstration. We may not like this, as readers, but we must acknowledge Flaubert’s determination not to repeat the effects of twenty years previously.

Still less would we have found traditional narrative succor if the novel had reached its projected form. Can we imagine what it would have been like reading the Copie, which would have doubled the length of the novel we have at the moment? (We can certainly “read” the Copie today, since various versions of it have been published; but it is impossible to read it in the way Flaubert intended, as the life-leavings of two dogged and defeated clerks. Instead, we read it as something assembled, or not quite assembled, by Flaubert.) The novel’s resistance to easy reading must have been as much part of its appeal to modernism as its curious flatness of tone and its radical innovation of form. At last—the novel was allowed to be difficult, allowed actively to deter certain readers, and to tack a vast appendix of data and pseudodata on the end of something that was half hyperrealism, half tract. Thus Pound thought Bouvard et Pécuchet inaugurated “a new form which had no precedents”; while, according to Cyril Connolly, it was Joyce’s favorite novel.


One of Bouvard and Pécuchet’s many failed projects is biography. Pécuchet suggests they write about the Duc d’Angoulême, the eldest son of Charles X, and the last-ever dauphin of France. “But he was an idiot!” Bouvard objects. To which Pécuchet has the correct biographer’s cliché waiting in reply: “Secondary figures sometimes have an enormous influence, and this one might turn out to have been a key player.” They research the Duc’s life (1775–1844), examine his portrait, list his achievements, annotate his princely traits, and tabulate his incredibly banal famous sayings. They seem to be making progress until they are shown a second portrait of their subject, which contradicts the first. In one representation the Duc’s hair is curly, in the other, straight. This disconcerts Pécuchet, “for an individual’s hair is an expression of his inner nature.” Bouvard is equally stumped by the Duc’s emotional life, since “one cannot truly know a man without knowing his passions.” They return home to discover a domestic brouhaha whose rights and wrongs they cannot sort out. “We don’t even know what’s going on under our own roof,” Bouvard concludes, “and we think we can uncover the truth about the Duke of Angoulême’s hairstyle and love affairs!” They abandon biography.

This might be taken as a warning to future biographers; as might Flaubert’s hatred of journalists, suspicion of snoops, cold-shouldering of photographers, and well-known declaration to the inquisitive Ernest Feydeau that “I have no biography.” Frederick Brown is the latest to deny that statement. The fact that his Flaubert is the fourth substantial biography in the last eighteen years (after Henri Troyat, 1988, Herbert Lottman, 1989, and Geoffrey Wall, 2001) is more a tribute to the novelist’s resurgent reputation—a resurgence inspired, as much as anything, by Sartre’s attempt to kill Flaubert off in 1971–1972—than a consequence of significant new material becoming available.

Frederick Brown—as might be expected of the biographer of Zola—is at his strongest when dealing with the social and political background to Flaubert’s life. His grasp of how French society worked in the midcentury—and therefore how Flaubert was able to play a dual role as knowing, manipulative insider and detached, disapproving outsider—is excellent. This is the biography which will best help us to understand Flaubert’s reactions to the ceaseless political turmoil of his life: from the Catholic extremism of Charles X and the astonishing career of Louis Napoleon—comic failure one minute, acclaimed emperor the next—to 1870–1871 and the presidential maneuverings of Mac-Mahon and the preposterous unreality of the Comte de Chambord’s campaign for the French throne. Closer to Croisset, Brown is most lucid on such subjects as Achille-Cléophas Flaubert’s land-acquisitiveness (on which his son’s independent, rentier existence was based); on the careers of the publishers Maurice Schlesinger (musical) and Georges Charpentier (literary); and on exactly how Flaubert’s friend Apollonie Sabatier was set up as an artistic hostess by her rich industrialist lover.

Such information is always welcome, even if at times it verges on the perplexing. Chapter 9, for instance, opens with an entertaining account of a trial held in Rouen in March 1846 of a young man called Beauvallon, who had killed a newspaper publisher in an allegedly rigged duel. Alexandre Dumas and Lola Montez were the star witnesses, and the case—which resulted in an acquittal—has a melodramatic fascination. The reader might justly wonder why this event has never featured in Flaubertian biography before. Why did Troyat, Lottman, and Wall ignore it? The answer comes at the end of the page and a half Brown devotes to le cas Beauvallon:

Even if Flaubert had wanted to witness for himself these judicial proceedings, he could not have left a grief-stricken household to satisfy his curiosity. In any event, his mind dwelt elsewhere, on the practical sequelae of his family tragedies.

This is far from the only occasion when the transition between background and foreground gives Mr. Brown problems. Flaubert’s long and sanguinary relationship with Louise Colet is finally coming to a close and Mr. Brown is describing their sulks, mutual recrimination, and infidelity, when he stops and suddenly notes:

The private conflict distracted them from bloody warfare in the world outside. Their correspondence suggests that neither paid much attention to news of Czar Nicholas’s occupying Wallachia with designs upon Constantinople, and French troops shipping out for the Black Sea in September 1854 to join English and Turk forces besieging a Russian fortress at Sebastopol, on the Crimean peninsula.

It is the kind of paragraph that might have featured in Bouvard and Pécuchet’s life of the Duc d’Angoulême.

Like previous biographers, Brown is more authoritative on the second half of Flaubert’s life than the first, where he tends to lapse both into the biographer’s hypothetical, and—presumably following Sartre—into a too-easy Freudianism. But he is excellent on Flaubert’s sexual and amatory life, on the divide between his taste for scatology and prostitutes, and his reliance on reverie and imaginative memory. By any normal standard, Flaubert hardly knew the women who defined his erotic understanding: as Brown aptly puts it, he had a “penchant for remote intimacy.” The time he spent with Élisa Schlesinger (a beach encounter leading to a full wallow of romantic love in the absence of its object), Eulalie Foucaud (first experience of freely given adult sex) and Kuchiuk Hanem (exotic and commercial sex) did not amount to much more than a few days (though he later knew Mme Schlesinger socially). The closest he came to any sort of extended intimacy was with Louise Colet, and even that—to her constant frustration—was largely an epistolary intimacy: he once told her that when two people love one another, they could go ten years without meeting, and without suffering from it. (“What a sentence!” was Colet’s marginal annotation on this letter.) In each of this key quartet of different relationships, Flaubert wanted to move quickly from the experience to the memory of the experience, from the part that was shared to the part where he controlled everything—the memory, the story, the imaginative use to which the encounter was put.

Flaubertian biography inevitably spreads out all the time: backward into the remotest discoverable detail about the novelist’s ancestors; sideways into the lives and activities of almost anyone who crossed Flaubert’s path. It does this because it has to go somewhere, and there is little still discoverable about Flaubert himself. Unseen letters continue to surface, of course, and will duly be gathered next year into the final volume of the incomparable Pléiade Correspondance, edited by Yvan Leclerc. But the only significant new material for many years emerged just as Mr. Brown was preparing to go to press. These are the four short texts presented by Leclerc and Matthieu Desportes as Vie et travaux du R.P. Cruchard et autres inédits.

The two most powerful items are private necrologies Flaubert wrote and then sealed away after the deaths of his friends Alfred Le Poittevin (in 1848) and Louis Bouilhet (in 1869). The Bouilhet piece contains a great biographical surprise: the revelation that a severe estrangement took place between the famously inseparable friends three years before Bouilhet’s death. This startling froideur—with each accusing the other of a different kind of embourgeoisement—has only ever been hinted at before, and then misunderstood; previously, it lay concealed by the reconciliation effected as Bouilhet was approaching death. Mr. Brown, perhaps because of the late arrival of this item, considerably undersells it.

Every biographer must have a bit of Bouvard and Pécuchet in him; every reviewer too. So it would be an offense against the spirit of the two clerks not to mention some of Mr. Brown’s errors. Here he is, setting the scene for us on his opening page, explaining where Rouen is:

Couched between the Seine winding north toward its mouth and the steep green and white spurs of an immense chalk plateau called the Pays des Caux….

The river does wind, it is true; but its mouth lies exactly due west of Rouen, while the Pays des Caux is the Pays de Caux. Elsewhere, we have Flaubert giving Louis Bouilhet the “nickname” Hyacinthe, when that was the poet’s middle name; and the novelist at Croisset hearing “the one o’clock ferry at La Bouille whistling its departure” (unlikely, since La Bouille is a good eight miles downstream). There is Mérimée’s Colomba (for Colombo) and Diane de Poitier (sic) and the statement that “there are no images of Flaubert between childhood and middle age” (there are certainly three).

Mr. Brown’s biography is, finally, rather underannotated. After learning how “apparently nothing” at the Great Exhibition delighted Flaubert as much as Tippoo’s Tiger in Leadenhall Street, I turned to Brown’s notes for his source. None given: well, perhaps it was a better-known encounter than I had assumed. But other biographies yielded nothing; nor did Flaubert’s letters, or his travel notes for London in 1851 (Leadenhall Street yes, tiger no). Perhaps the Goncourt Journal (Tippoo yes, tiger no) or Hermia Oliver’s book on Juliet Herbert or Caroline Commanville’s memoirs? Again no. I enlisted a French Flaubertiste with no better outcome. It’s not that I doubt Mr. Brown, merely that I think he should have told us where he got the story from. Apart from anything else, it would allow us to check the exact force of that biographer’s word which often sounds like a warning creak beneath the foot: “apparently.”