When Flaubert died in 1880, he left Bouvard and Pecuchet, his "kind of encyclopedia made into a farce," unfinished and unedited. In scope, it was to be Flaubert's masterpiece: a satiric work compounded of his life-long scorn of the bourgeoisie, their morals, their intellectual giddiness, their thoughtless generalizations.
Flaubert's style, however, seems to deny effective translation. Writing in the idiom of the French middle class, using accepted cliches, and punning occasionally, he writes French that is very difficult to render into another language. Especially in the case of Bouvard and Pecuchet, many translations have lacked the spirit, even the satiric subtlety of the original. But this most recent attempt, published by New Directions and jointly translated by T. W. Earp and G. W. Stonier, accurately reveals the artistry of Flaubert to an English-reading audience.
Flaubert's is a special kind of satire; it deals in particulars. He did not see the middle class or the intellectual activity of his time as generally despicable entities; instead, he ranted at the individual trait, the peculiar trend. It is for this reason that he called his last work, "a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce." He does not damn in a single motion, but piles absurdity upon inanity in the dialogue and thought of his characters. So thorough is his technique that no character-type and no superficial mode of thought escapes his treatment.
After they renounce their lives as Paris copy clerks and move to the country, Bouvard and Pecuchet hop from one intellectual endeavor to the other. Their failure at preserving vegetables leads them to chemistry, and each successive disappointment leads to a new venture: geology, biology, medicine, verse, politics, literary criticism. Each new "study" leaves them uncertain and confused, but they feel sure that with one more book, one more discovery, a certain subject will become entirely clear to them.
Yet Flaubert seems always to have his sympathies with his two befuddled heroes. The follies of Bouvard and Pecuchet are pitiable but not hateful. Accepted as men of mediocre capabilities, the limited success that they do have is a glorious triumph. In comparison to the other characters in the book, their enlightenment is a miracle and their learning, shallow as it is, approaches the profound. Bouvard and Pecuchet are loyal friends, and for Flaubert, friendship is a virtue. Therefore, although these two heroes are the vehicle for some of the author's bitterest comments on the bourgeoisie, they are not the only object of his tirade. There is something more.
In our own day, many valid complaints are heard against the shoddy intellectualism which is encouraged by pocket-sized philosophies and "Such a Person Made Easy" books. Flaubert, too, despised this surface learning. In a way then, Bouvard and Pecuchet are victims of circumstances. Even if they had the ability to gain real knowledge of any subject, it would be impossible, Flaubert seems to say, because of the superficial culture of the nineteenth century.
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.
In the end, Flaubert grants his two heroes superiority over their contemporaries. Bouvard and Pecuchet, having found that they cannot conquer the world with ideas, return to their old task of copying. They build a double copying desk and set to work together. As in Voltaire's Candide, their last act is their most noble; a realization of the world's shortcomings and the acceptance of a simple, limited vocation as the only attainable reality of life.
Flaubert's "Dictionary of Accepted Ideas" contains many of the author's observations of the superficial and Inane thought in the nineteenth century. Samples are printed below: (Translated by Jacques Barzun; New Directions, $2.00)
CRUCIFIX. Looks well above a bedstead--or the guillotine.
EXCEPTION. Say it proves the rule but don't venture to explain how.
FACE. The mirror of the soul. Hence some people's souls must be rather ugly.
MANDOLIN. Indispensable for seducing Spanish women.
HOMER. Never existed. Famous for his laughter.
SPINACH. Acts on your stomach like a broom. Never forget to repeat M. Prudhomme's famous remark: "I don't like it and am glad of it, because if I liked it I would eat it--and I can't stand it." (Some people will find this sensible enough and won't laugh.)
THIRTEEN. Avoid being thirteen at a table; it brings bad luck. The strong-minded should not fall to crack Jokes: "What is the difference? I'll eat enough for two!" Or again, if there are ladies, ask if any is pregnant.
YOUNG GENTLEMAN. Always sowing wild oats; he is expected to do so. Astonishment when he doesn't.