Nine Suppositions Concerning Bouvard and Pecuchet.
1. Suppose that you were to ask me here to say a few words, preferably heartfelt, about a mythical and apparently incomplete book, Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert, I would note, right from the start, the necessity of rereading it, which for me would be my third reading, the first was forever ago and left no trace, the second saw me taking notes on the flyleaf, allowing me to track the changes time had wrought on the book, that's to say those in the eye of the reader, but then, supplied as I also am with a somewhat bittersweet memory related to the subject, I would want to speak about the day when Mme Annie Lebrun, on the Panorama program broadcast by France Culture (the show is no longer on the air), assassinated one of my books without first having read it, simply by virtue of having just heard an interview with myself, commenting on whatever it was 1 had just said by declaring that it was almost as stupid as Bouvard and Pecuchet being reunited, and this sentence, intended to be implacable, immersed me instead into that well-worn self-interrogation: how should I take this? eh bien, at the time, rather poorly; over time, rather well.
2. Suppose that you were then to ask me to dive into the body of the text, which is the least you could do, I would gladly start with its title, which today seems remarkable to me for a whole host of reasons, and particularly in that, while giving a novel the title of its hero is hardly anodyne in itself (Madame Bovary is not called The Sentimental Dissolution any more than The Sentimental Education is called "Monsieur Moreau"), to title a book with the names of two heroes is actually rather uncommon, and while I must remind myself here that you certainly won't neglect to throw Tristan and Iseult or Paul and Virginia at me, titles of heterosexual couplaison, I would retort that in cases where one has two males on one's hands, neither (upstream) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, nor (downstream) Thomson and Thompson, serve to eponymize the works from which they emerge, and that it's only following Bouvard and Pecuchet, it seems to me, that one can have Hesses Narcissus and Goldmund, let alone Laurel and Hardy, although we must also bear in mind that while Cervantes did not title his book "Don Quixote and Sancho," Diderot, all the same, chose Jacques the Fatalist and his Master.
3. Suppose that you were to ask me, here, on the strength of the above reference to Quixote, to make an attempt to lay out the genealogy of my personnagitude, I would note, with the complicity of the Charles Huard etching reproduced on the cover of the Gothot-Mersch edition of Quixote, that I cannot help but imagine Flaubert lurking behind the figures of the little fat man and big lean man of la Mancha, deciding to give us, by way of contrast, a little lean one and a big fat one, always and again of la Mancha, if not quite the same la Mancha (because, you know, in French, we refer to the English Channel as la Manche, and of course Flaubert's heroes set up shop near Caen, where no doubt they could scent the salt of that passage), drawing in this way two very distinct and unforgettable silhouettes, the two couples rhyming quite clearly (and witness the vague echo: "qui-xote" / "cu-chet") in terms of the mental difficulties they risk in being exposed to books (which brings us back to Emma Bovary as well), which books should in all good educative conviction clarify one's views, but instead lead in the end into the mire.
4. Suppose that you were to ask me to push a little more at the envelope of this story about a couple who fell in love at first sight, I would remark that if we were to return to the deserted Boulevard where first they meet, we found find that these two characters are described not as big or small, per se, but, curiously, as "the taller one" and "the shorter one"; that is to say, they're measured one against the other, not on their own; likewise, they aren't in a master-servant relationship (in this too they are very modern), with the infantile truculence of Bouvard soon set up against the virtually sectarian snippiness of Pecuchet, all of it manifesting a remarkable double-mindedness and a potential for quixotic dialogue that appears to me to take its source in the creative person of M. Flaubert himself--extravagance and colorfulness vs. exactitude; sexual extravagance vs. strict abstinence--not, I mean, in the service of a sort of autofiction, but rather to create an alternovel that isn't afraid to set foot upon the ground of potential autobiography, and in double entry, no less, which only assures us of its originality.
5. Suppose that you were to ask me now to further typify this novel, somewhat in the same fashion as Alfred Jarry when subtitling his various opuses (Faustroll is "A Neo-scientific Novel"; Days and Nights is a "Novel of a Deserter"; Messalina is "A Novel of Imperial Rome"; The Supermale, is "A Modern Novel"), I would be tempted to write, simply, that it's "A Comic Novel," without that preventing me from asking the question: what sort of laughter are we talking about? or, to put it another way, if Raymond Queneau defined the comic novel as a novel that smiled and disdained death, and instead Flaubert is mocking life and laughing out loud and simply despising death, where does that leave us? how did Flaubert manage to make a comedy that spares no one, not even books themselves--including his own--on behalf of the world; a comedy in which his learned gentlemen, "who were so famously well-read" are seen most often through a keyhole, or in any case certainly voyeuristically--"the two men, naked as savages, splashed each other with bucketsful of water.... They could seen through the latticework ..."--a book in which the staging of, for example, Pecuchet and the priest's theological skirmish under the umbrella and the squall is just as hilarious as the notion of heating bath water with the very body soaking in it, an incredibly prescient and sensible solution to the energy problem, which is itself nearly as funny as a recent and very serious article I saw in the news on the necessary and ecological (for the ozone layer) reduction of the number of pet cows.
6. Suppose that everything had not already been said on the intellectual courage of Bouvard and Pecuchet, on the total engagement that animates our couple before their moment of temporary discouragement, I could then stress their more audacious side, those sweet-talkers, those boxers climbing into the ring in quest of knowledge, and whose unavoidable destiny will be to take more than a few punches, because these are the risks of the job, but punches of what nature and thrown by whom? by the naysayers of course, who are legion, and who nourish the novel with a bevy of splendid secondary roles created by the hand of a master; but mainly by a nonspecific entity called life--the real, the concrete world, whose complexity laughs at the violence that is done to it in the name of scientifically, encyclopedically, politically simplifying it.
7. Suppose that my reading were to make further demands upon me, insisting that I elucidate the ways in which Bouvard and Pecuchet, despite their more than commendable efforts, are put down by the spiteful world, I would be obliged to highlight the terrifying or salubrious, as you will, skepticism of Flaubert, who offers us, on the page, the spectacle of a Novelist of Doleful Countenance reduced to the role of mere transcriber (don't copy each other, our good teachers used to tell us, you'll only wind up copying nonsense ...), which is one of two things: either an austere but ultimately positive way of purifying the exercise of art from all the rhetoric of the "artiste" (it's in this manner that Charles Reznikoff copied, for example); or, rather, an act of desperation, deducing that the final outcome of the exercise of art is nothing more than a fatal and endless parroting of all the words that have come before, a work there will be no need to complete since it is, in itself, incompletable.
8. Suppose that you were to ask me here if I nurtured some admiration, regret, or sympathy for the incompleteness of Bouvard and Pecuchet, I would not only respond in the affirmative, but, more, would lay out an axiom stating that the incompleteness of any and every incomplete book, when it is extraordinary, is and was always, always, always deliberate (is it not, Messieurs Kafka, Proust, Musil?); this axiom permitting you to ponder--in no particular biographical order--death (but perhaps one must die in order to be seen as a great innovator of incompleteness?), and then not only why but how the incompleteness was, if I may put it this way, accomplished; for example, we can contrast In Search of Lost Time, a "finished" book, which has an explicit (in the medieval sense) apparently intact--albeit a book still considered incomplete, as it were, on its interior (or, for that matter, perhaps complete, after all?)--while Bouvard and Pecuchet, for its part, would seem incontestably to have an incipit at its disposal, and yet to lack, explicitly, its explicit.
9. Suppose that you were to wonder at last if I don't still have a notion, somewhere in the back of my mind, to comment on the already too-commented-on first line of Bouvard, namely, "As the temperature that day had risen to 33 degrees,* Boulevard Bourdon was completely deserted," I would respond that in a private sale I recently acquired a previously undiscovered portion of the original manuscript of Bouvard and Pecuchet (I wanted to scan it in and e-mail it to you as a surprise, but the file that was on my computer inadvertently disappeared this morning thanks to a mug of cocoa getting knocked over onto my keyboard), which happens to contain no less than sixteen different versions of this incipit, which is certainly significant, and I wanted to give them all to you here:
version no. 1: As there was a glacial temperature of -133 degrees, the Boulevard Bourdon no longer existed.
version no. 2: As the temperature had dropped to -33 degrees, the water had frozen over in the lake at the Port de l'Arsenal below the Boulevard Bourdon, which was not very well-frequented anyway.
version no. 3: As the temperature had dropped to -32 degrees, the skaters skated on the lake at the Port de l'Arsenal below the Bourdon Boulevard, on which the streetwalkers didn't dream of turning tricks.
version no. 4: As the temperature had dropped to-13 degrees, the travel agencies on the Boulevard Bourdon were advertising camel-trips in the desert.
version no. 5: As the temperature had dropped to 0, the Boulevard Bourdon wasn't buzzing with people.
version no. 6: As the winter was actually heating up a little, up to 3 whole degrees, the Boulevard Bourdon was a little less deserted than the seasonal average
version no. 7: As it was a very mild 22 degrees outside, and there had been no pollution warning for the day, the French National Assembly was completely deserted.
version no. 8: As the temperature that day had risen to thirty-three degrees, Boulevard Bourdon was completely deserted version no. 9: As the temperature that day had risen to 33 degrees, Boulevard Bourdon was buzzing with bees.
version no. 10: As the temperature that day had risen to 35 degrees, the printers on the Boulevard Bourdon left words, sentences, and sometimes entire passages out of their composition work.
version no. 11: As the temperature that day had risen to 68 degrees, the asphalt on the Boulevard Bourdon had started to melt.
version no 12: As the temperature that day had risen to 69 degrees, the travel agencies on the Boulevard Bourdon were offering sled rides through the frozen north.
version no. 13: As the temperature that day had risen to 70 degrees, even the Boulevard Bourdon presbytery lost its luster and didn't remain cool, which had previously been its primary attraction.
version no. 14: As the temperature that day had risen to 72 degrees, the asphalt on the Boulevard Bourdon had finished melting.
version no. 15: As the temperature that day had risen to 89 degrees, the thermo-survival jumpsuits of the president, ministers, and deputies at last reached the end of their capacities.
version no: 16: As the temperature that day had risen to 99 degrees, the water was ready to boil in the lake at the Port de l'Arsenal below the Boulevard Bourdon, which had remained totally deserted since the great warming of the planet, which ended all life, even fish, on the premises.
Flaubert finally decided on the temperature that we know today, 33 degrees, which permitted him in a subtle and not-too-civilizationally-apocalyptic way to put the final situation at the beginning of the novel, namely the desertification demanded by the fury of the world reacting violently, as we've seen, to the impacts of the at once touching and pretentious efforts of human knowledge, such that the power of the world displaces and destroys the human species ("totally deserted"), de-fi-ni-ti-ve-ly hushing it up, applying a final solution to the knowledge or obscuritanism that drives the novelist to lead us to believe in the incipit when, obviously, this here ain't one of'em after all, and that Flaubert chose, as a matter of fact, in the name of paradox, to start his book with a threat and with an explicit by anticipation, which is to say, to start his book with the end.
Translated by E. C. Gogolak
* The Dalkey Archive edition (2005) translates this figure to 92[degrees] Fahrenheit.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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