Friday, July 31, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet I

I'm in my usual summer lull, in which I don't read much, and have chosen this novel by Gustave Flaubert because, for literature, it is fairly light reading. On the surface, it is simple, about the lives of two middle-aged French copy-clerks who take up various hobbies and, after failing at one, simply move on to another. The tone is that of a farce or comedy, but I am hoping that something more substantial will emerge – it may not. So far, in some respects, it isn't entirely different from Madame Bovary, in the sense that a person's obsessions can be a sign of poor judgment, and, if never examined, can lead to tragedy. I was never sure how sympathetic Flaubert felt toward Emma Bovary as she pursued a life of folly until it did her in. Something of the same mood exists in this book, but, since Flaubert never finished it, dying at the age of fifty-eight, there may be no clear answer. It is possible that, like me, Flaubert noticed the role of stupidity in people's lives, and that he wanted to sum up his thoughts on the topic in a literary fashion. Now as much as at any time in the past, it is easy to identify the blunders that people make and the sometimes-disastrous consequences. However, I'm not counting on that from Flaubert and am just taking the book as I read it. Flaubert did an enormous amount of research for this book, because he wanted to familiarize himself with the subjects that Bouvard and Pécuchet pursued. It is a bit of a challenge to contextualize much of the action, given that most of the books available to someone at that time would have been riddled with inaccuracies. But it is still relatively simple to identify the conspicuous blunders made by the protagonists. 

Bouvard is a widowed bachelor who runs into Pécuchet, a never-married bachelor, one day on the streets of Paris. They discover that they both have a passion for exploring new fields, and when Bouvard inherits a large sum from his deceased father, he and Pécuchet retire in order to pursue their ideal lives. Bouvard buys a manor house and farm in Normandy, near Caen, and farming and gardening become their first hobbies, though they had some experience with gardening in Paris. They rush headlong into the latest techniques that they've read about, and one plan after another backfires. Though they do consult local farmers, their farming experience culminates in a huge fire, apparently caused by spontaneous combustion, which destroys their haystacks. After this, they turn over the farming to a tenant and become interested in medicine. That leads them to try out cures on the locals and eventually brings them into conflict with the town doctor, who threatens to have them arrested for practicing medicine without a license. Their next hobbies become geology and natural history, which result in their causing a landslide while digging for fossils on a coastal bluff. Since Flaubert was a contemporary of Darwin, it is interesting to me that he knew something about evolution and modern geology – yet Bouvard and Pécuchet are unable to persuade a priest that the biblical flood doesn't explain some geological formations. After hearing the priest's arguments, they give up on geology.

I still have seven chapters left and will comment as I go. It occurs to me that Flaubert lived at a time when the phenomenon of the amateur hobbyist was at a peak. As Thomas Piketty has noted, during the late nineteenth century in France and England there was excessive wealth. Hobbyists in England were churning out inventions and scientific ideas at a phenomenal rate, and I assume that the same occurred in France. I am reminded not only of people like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, but of literary people such as G.H. Lewes. After working as a failed dramatist and novelist, although he lacked the resources to become a full-time hobbyist, Lewes undertook private research in marine biology. It seems likely that Flaubert was acquainted with many such hobbyists, and perhaps, in combination with a personal skepticism regarding scientific progress, he found them to be a good topic for satire. Some reviewers think that Bouvard and Pécuchet represents the first postmodern novel, but I think it is more likely that it is a satirical skewering of some of Flaubert's contemporaries. Even so, Flaubert usually portrays his characters sympathetically.

In any case, Flaubert writes with such precision that he's always a pleasure to read – even in translation. Describing Bouvard and Pécuchet during their brief infatuation with chemistry, he writes:

What a marvel it was to find that human beings were composed of the same substances as minerals. Still, they felt a kind of humiliation at the thought that their persons contained phosphorus like matches, albumen like egg whites, and hydrogen gas like street lamps. 

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