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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bouvard and Pécuchet

Gustave Flaubert

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Title: Bouvard and Pécuchet
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Genre: Novel
Written: (1880) (Eng. 2005)
Length: 354 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Bouvard and Pécuchet - US
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  • French title: Bouvard et Pécuchet
  • The 2005 Dalkey Archive Press edition on which our review is based is a new translation by Mark Polizzotti
  • Previously translated by T.W.Earp and G.W.Stonier (1936; US 1954) and Alban J. Krailsheimer (1976)
  • With an Introduction by Mark Polizzotti
  • With a Preface by Raymond Queneau
  • Includes: the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas

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Our Assessment:

A- : tremendous (though peculiar) fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 7/5/1996 .
FAZ . 24/1/2004 Wolfgang Schneider
Frankfurter Rundschau . 6/9/2003 Katharina Rutschky
The Globe and Mail* . 17/6/2006 André Alexis
The Guardian* . 17/12/2005 Jane Housham
The Harvard Crimson . 29/4/1954 E.H.Harvey
The LA Times* . 18/12/2005 Susan Salter Reynolds
London Rev. of Books* . 7/9/2006 John Sturrock
The Nation . 24/4/1954 Leon Edel
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 5/8/2003 Stefan Zweifel
The New Yorker . 11/9/1954 Alfred Kazin
The NY Rev. of Books* . 25/5/2006 Julian Barnes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/4/1954 Francis Steegmuller
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 22/1/2006 Christopher Hitchens
Time . 22/3/1954 .
TLS* . 21/4/2006 Anthony Cummins
The Village Voice* . 30/6/2006 Brandon Stosuy
Die Welt . 10/7/2004 Hannes Stein

Only those reviews marked with an asterisk (*) are of the 2005 English translation by Mark Polizzotti

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)as irrsinnigste und tödlichste Buch, das je einer angefangen hat, der, nachdem er auf seine Weise für die Welt getan hatte, was er vermochte, ihr nun den letzten Dienst erweist und zu ihr sagt: Es ist alles nichts." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In Bouvard und Pécuchet steigert sich der Wirklichkeitsekel zum Erkenntnisekel. Das Buch ist eine der nachhaltigsten Kollisionen von Wissenschaft und Literatur. Kein wissenschaftlicher Roman ist das Ergebnis, sondern einer, der sich mittels spröder Komik der zudringlichen Diskurse zu erwehren sucht. (...) Flauberts Figuren ähneln Marionetten; nicht erst in diesem Roman. Der psychische Innenraum wird zum Vakuum." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Eine verbreitetere Lesart von Bouvard und Pécuchet macht das Buch seit langem zu einem Meilenstein kulturaristokratischer und also hinreichend ironischer Gesellschaftskritik (.....) Mindestens kann man nach Helen Zagonas Forschungen sagen, dass die Leser von Bouvard und Pécuchet im eigenen Interesse gut beraten wären, sich von gewissen Erwartungshaltungen, die sich im Hinblick auf Romane eingeschliffen haben, zu verabschieden." - Katharina Rutschky, Frankfurter Rundschau

  • "(M)agnificent, at times difficult to read and (almost) beyond praise or blame. It's a novel in which much of what we know of 20th-century literature finds its origin. So, reviewing it is rather like reviewing an acorn or a seedling. (...) Another thing that makes it difficult for me to review is that, perhaps more than any other novel I've read, Bouvard and Pécuchet elicited two distinct and contradictory impressions. As a reader, I found it difficult going at times. As a writer, I thought it magnificent." - André Alexis, The Globe and Mail

  • "Flaubert's last (and unfinished) novel is hugely ambitious, its volcanic force fuelled by boundless exasperation with the world." - Jane Housham, The Guardian

  • "Flaubert has a common tie with other great satirists; his heroes set out to test and idea in the harshness of the world. With Don Quixote it is the chivalric ideal, with Candide, optimism. And with Bouvard and Pecuchet it is the notion that ideas themselves can triumph throughout the world." - E.H.Harvey, The Harvard Crimson

  • "B. and P. are given no quarter: from the start to the finish of their story, they are being played by their author for a pair of suckers. And that is why the book is so curious, because he can't play them for suckers without at the same time seeming to play himself for one. " - John Sturrock, London Review of Books

  • "Therein lies the downfall of Bouvard and Pécuchet, who, viewed through Southern California's rose-colored glasses, look a little ridiculous but for the most part happy -- certainly not worth a cerebral hemorrhage." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Flaubert is much closer to the surface of Bouvard et Pécuchet than of any other novel he published. (...) 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." - Julian Barnes, The New York Review of Books

  • "Like all Flaubert's novels, Bouvard and Pécuchet is not the statement of a thesis but a mirror wrought by a genius for society to look into; it is a great Socratic question mark. Because of the unfinished state in which Flaubert left it, the elements it comprises are not entirely fused and among its many attractions is the glimpse it gives us into a novelist's workshop." - Francis Steegmuller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel was plainly intended to show its author's deep contempt, however comedically expressed, for all grand schemes, most especially the Rousseauean ones, to improve the human lot. (...) What is amazing is the industry with which Flaubert assimilated so many books on arcane subjects (some 1500, according to Polizzotti), all of this knowledge acquired just so that a brace of nobodies could manage to get things not just wrong, but exactly wrong. " - Christopher Hitchens, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In English, as in French, Flaubert's catalogue of follies is well short of hilarious. He believed that if he made his story "concise and light, it would be a fantasy -- more or less witty, but without weight or plausibility." But his text tends to prove that in writing Bouvard, Flaubert spent eight years with the wrong idea. In many places the hand of the master is apparent and some passages are amusing, but like poor old Bouvard and Pécuchet, who ruined their strawberries with too much dung, Flaubert has crushed his farce with too many fatuities." - Time

  • "Even if Polizzotti does serve Bouvard "espresso", in the 1830s, perhaps his subtle joke, since anachronism in fiction shocks Flaubert's clerks -- this modernizing translation is nicely judged and deserves a wide readership." - Anthony Cummins, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Following middle-aged dimwits into the country, B&P is part medieval mystery play, part slapstick implosion. (...) Critics highlight B&P's structural repetitions, that our Seinfeldian Frenchman desired to write a book about nothing, but despite B&P's fixation on quick intellectual fixes and its geometric alignments, it's more than bitter masturbation." - Brandon Stosuy, The Village Voice

  • "Bouvard und Pécuchet blieb Fragment -- aber was für eins! Es ist wahrscheinlich der einzige Roman, in dem ein Schriftsteller sich der Aufgabe stellte, das Phänomen der menschlichen Dummheit bei den Eselsohren zu packen." - Hannes Stein, Die Welt

  • "It sounds formidable, and in parts undoubtedly is. Opinion is divided on whether it is amusing or not. On this point, of course, persuasion is fruitless." - Margartet G. Tillett, On Reading Flaubert (Oxford University Press, 1961)

  • "The curious and almost subversive prestige which this unfinished novels enjoys in our time reveals more perhaps about the intellectual frustrations and inadequacies of our own period than about the work itself. The artistic merits of Bouvard and Pécuchet are indeed difficult to assess, difficult even to discuss. The shortcomings of the book are self-evident. In many ways it could be considered a monumental failure." - Victor Brombert, The Novels of Flaubert (Princeton University Press, 1966)

  • "This book is not for the faintly minded. It is a devastation, a blowup as total as the bomb, of our European pretensions to knowledge." - William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

  • "This last work, with its comic catalog of fruitless endeavors, has its admirers, yet it is hard not to feel that here Flaubert's will-to-nullification imprisoned him in tautology, wherein the repetitive exposure of bourgeois stupidity condemned the novelist to a repetitive anthologizing of that very stupidity; 'The Dictionary of Received Ideas,' which rather tiresomely alphabetizes examples of bourgeois cliché, seems at times a joke on Flaubert rather than by him." - James Wood, The New York Times Book Review (16/4/2006)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       François Denys Bartholomée Bouvard and Juste Romain Cyrille Pécuchet are one of literature's great odd couples. A pair of copy clerks, they're stuck in dead-end jobs, without much of a circle of friends or family (the one lost his wife decades earlier, the other even still a virgin), they're unremarkable enough before they find each other. But once they team up .....
       When they happen to sit down on the same bench and strike up a conversation they almost instantly become best buddies, each recognising the other as a soulmate, making for the most radical change in their dull and pedestrian lives for decades.
       Beyond being the same age -- both in their late forties when they first meet -- they're not obviously well-matched, but they simply hit it off: "By the end of the week, they were calling each other by their first names" (an intimacy not shared with the reader, for whom they remain Bouvard and Pécuchet). In appearance and character they are dissimilar, but they share a certain outlook and approach to life, a driving force that's a mix of childish wonder and curiosity and a deeply ingrained opinionated closed-mindedness amd obtuseness. They don't agree about everything, either, but their mutual affection and respect isn't affected by what differences of opinion they have. And, from the first, regardless of what the subject is, they're bound soon to move on to the next, unable to stick to any one thing for any length of time -- another shared character trait.
       Bouvard and Pécuchet would be just another quirky Parisian pair of close friends that spent a lot of time together, arguing, discussing, sightseeing -- were it not for a stroke of very good luck: Bouvard inherits a decent-sized fortune, and suddenly some of the dreams they have can be realised. They can leave their jobs, leave Paris, pursue their true interests. It takes a while to make the leap -- for one, Pécuchet insists on working for another two years, so that he is eligible to receive his pension and doesn't have to live off Bouvard -- but eventually they buy a property and settle in the countryside.
       What follows is a comedy of trials and errors (lots of errors) from which little is learnt -- except that one can always move on to the next thing. Bouvard and Pécuchet show incredible, almost obsessive ambition -- and little staying power, unable to see much of anything through (though their dismal failures certainly make it more understandable why they abandon one field after the next). They devote themselves completely to whatever fad strikes them -- farming ! archaeology ! philosophy ! education ! -- , turn to the literature (and, occasionally, experts in the field), grab onto whatever piece of advice they first come across that sounds sound to them, and proceed, almost inevitably to fail. Then they'll occasionally grab onto different advice and follow that (with similar results), and then, inevitably, they'll abandon this pursuit in favour of another.
       Bouvard and Pécuchet believe in the ability of the human mind to conquer the world. Everything can be understood, and the best way of tackling any task is by consulting the knowledge accumulated in books: they have an almost charming blind faith in the power of the written word -- though, unfortunately, they are unable to differentiate between wisdom and foolishness when it is in printed form (or, for that matter, in any form). But especially if it's black on white they're inclined to believe it -- though if the next book they open says the opposite they'll simply embrace that and forget about the previous one (as they will again if they find yet another book with contradictory information).
       Flaubert has lots of fun with scholarly (and other) claims and advice: Bouvard and Pécuchet at times rivals Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy for how much knowledge is regurgitated in slapdash fashion (that being Bouvard and Pécuchet's approach, not necessarily Flaubert's). His two heroes are not discerning minds, and one of Flaubert's points is certainly how easily even wisdom can feed foolishness (though not everything quoted or referred to is wise -- indeed, another point is that there's a lot of claptrap posing as wisdom).
       Their long march to perdition begins with efforts at conquering their new land: farming and gardening. They move on to the body (medicine, which they even practise) leading on to the sciences generally. They turn to archaeology, which leads to history. But: "Without imagination, history is flawed", so they turn to Walter Scott and literature. The Revolution of 1848 leads them to dabble in politics -- even consider a run for the Chamber of Deputies. Typically:

     They drew straws to decide which one would pose his candidacy. The straws settled nothing, so they went to consult the doctor about the matter.
       They study politics, moving eventually even to Fourierism. It's just one of many systems that, for a while, replaces all others in their minds and hearts:
     "That's for me !" said Bouvard. And he became lost in daydreams about a harmonized world.
       Intellectual disappointment leads them to embrace physical fitness. Thrilled by the idea of "its use as a means of rescue", they ask to borrow children from the school to practise on (they're always great experimenters). The schoolmaster won't lend them any, so:
     "They made do with giving the injured first aid: one pretended to faint, and the other carted him around in a wheelbarrow, observing every precaution.
       Their games delight them, but they always need that sense of purpose behind them -- and often lose it. Soon enough physical fitness is replaced by metaphysical exploration -- séances ! -- which in turn leads to philosophy.
       It's here, in ultimate abstraction, that their failure is most evident and most clearly summed up by Flaubert:
     They felt as if they were in a balloon, at night, in the glacial cold, carried along in an endless rush toward a bottomless abyss -- with nothing around them but the ungraspable, the immobile, the eternal. It was too much. They gave up.
       Defeat -- complete and often humiliating -- is par for the course for them. After philosophy they're left only with the brief retreat into the comforting fog of religion, but that doesn't fulfill them adequately either.
       A final desperate act by those who have never learnt their lesson is to embrace education and become pedagogues: they take in two children and try to teach them. Those who can't do, teach, but needless to say the supremely incapable Bouvard and Pécuchet -- despite their (as ever) enthusiastic embrace of theory (or rather: theories) -- are not up to moulding young minds
       All this experience -- despite how little they learn from it -- comes at considerable cost, and from grand ambitions through declining fortunes (as they spend money freely at first, but soon enough find themselves in fairly dire straits) the book is a story of failure. Yet, though their wide-eyed enthusiasm falters on occasion, they can't be brought down: they really don't learn, but because of that they can also go on almost as merrily as always.
       Along the way there's also a touch of romance (and Pécuchet even gets laid -- with, predictably, pretty much the worst sort of consequences), as well as their interaction with the locals, their tenant-farmers, and their help. They're not great businessmen (or hosts, or employers), either, but fit in well in this slice of society Flaubert presents, made up of rogues and fools (and his two anti-heroes aren't the only ones he pokes a lot of fun at as he, for example, gleefully describes a group of national guardsmen turning tail because: "they had mistaken an apple tree for a man aiming a rifle at them"). But Bouvard and Pécuchet aren't simply a dimwitted, joined at the hip pair either, and Flaubert does flesh them out as separate characters who do suffer (and react) when the going occasionally (and briefly) gets tough.
       Bouvard and Pécuchet's obsessiveness and obliviousness renders them almost endearing. They go about their business, and don't seem to care much what anybody thinks. And they are adults who are willing and able to indulge in a childish sense of wonder. They have a remarkable thirst for knowledge, and though it strikes others (and the reader) as almost insane, there's an appealing quality about it. They experiment on themselves and on others (generally failing, but with the occasional success), and most of their ideas are beyond what any normal person would consider:
     They were seen running along the main road to town, wearing sopping wet clothes under the broiling sun. This was to verify whether thirst can be quenched by applying water to the epidermis. They returned home panting and both suffering from colds.
       Everything they try poses a new set of problems, especially regarding authority, which they are always eager to follow:
     Ancient history is obscure because there are too few documents. In modern history there are too many.
       What to do ? Next subject ..... But, of course, every subject turns out to be similarly intractable and confounding. As Bouvard complains at one point:
     "We don't even know what's going on under our own roof," said Bouvard, "and we think we can uncover the truth about the Duke of Angoulmême's hairstyles and love affairs ?"
       But truth is what they're after, even about those hairstyles -- at least until they have an excuse to give it up for some more pressing truth.
       Bouvard and Pécuchet look for rules and blueprints to follow, certain that that is all that it takes. The true complexity of the world and the subjects they seek to conquer is beyond their ken; they believe that it is enough to set one's mind to it.
       The novel remains incomplete, the last chapters and the conclusion only suggested in outline, yet it's tied together neatly enough, the last scenes readily imagined (could it be any other way ?) as the former copy-clerks hit on where the answer is.
       Bouvard and Pécuchet is an imperfect book -- not least because it is incomplete -- but it is a great book. It is a novel of ideas -- of all ideas, and of the danger that ideas pose. It's not just wrong ideas that are harmful; even good and correct ideas can be abused -- as Bouvard and Pécuchet prove again and again and again.
       Bouvard and Pécuchet is a dense, fast-moving tale. The narrative covers years, and bounds through them, from one misadventure to the next. Short paragraphs describe the unfolding catastrophe that is the lives of Bouvard and Pécuchet once they set their plans into action. Like a boulder bouncing down an incredibly long and steep incline, occasionally smashing what comes in its path, throwing stones and earth and whatever else it hits clear, the story goes on and on in similar, predictable fashion (disaster after disaster) yet what they get up to is such a varied lot that it remains a tremendously entertaining story. At times it can seem like simply a list of carnage -- and certainly a bit more character development and descriptions of their day-to-day lives would have been welcome -- but it is, in the end, a real novel and not merely a philosophical exercise dressed up as one.
       Many of the allusions and references remain obscure (as they probably were even for readers in Flaubert's time, as the book is set several decades before his death), and at times one longs for a fully annotated edition (or companion volume), but the text can easily stand on its own.
       There are few books which one can call 'must reads', but the case for Bouvard and Pécuchet being one, flaws and all, is about as strong as for any book.
       Highly recommended.

       Note: The Dalkey Archive volume also includes Flaubert's earlier Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and the draft outline of the Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas (apparently translated into English for the first time). The Dictionary, as Polizzotti explains:
distills the novel's content and unseasonable sense of humor into a wide canvas of attitudes and opinions at once risible and deeply rooted
       It's a very funny piece, and a welcome appendix. There are some translation issues -- and Polizzotti begs forgiveness from "the proponents of literalness" -- but with the novel proper being the focus, this version, by the same translator, is more than adequate for its purposes.

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Bouvard and Pécuchet: Reviews: Gustave Flaubert: Other books by Gustave Flaubert under review: Books about Gustave Flaubert under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) wrote several acknowledged classics.

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© 2005-2023 the complete review

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