A review of

Bouvard And Pécuchet

by Gustave Flaubert

Central question: How stupid are characters allowed to be?
Format: 350 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5" x 8"; Price: $13.95; Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; Editor: John O’Brien; Print run: 8,000; Book designer: Mark Polizzotti; Typeface: Garamond; Number of books Flaubert read to write novel: More than 1,500; Flaubert’s suggestion for polite thing to say after yawning: “Forgive me, it isn’t the company, it’s my stomach”; Body part from whence Flaubert claims nightmares originate: Stomach; Only mustard worth eating, according to Flaubert: Dijon; Representative passage: “What a country! You couldn’t find more inept, uncivilized and backward people.”

The consolation of sadness in literature has always been that fiction names despair and helps to conquer it by knowing. But Gustave Flaubert offers no such comfort in Bouvard and Pécuchet. His heroes start out dumb and stay dumb. This is why his final, unfinished novel is prized by the avant-garde: it spurns a fictional convention so ontologically ineffable we hardly knew it was there.

The eponymous characters, Abbott and Costello–style morons, spectacularly fail to conquer various fields of knowledge, including farming, archeology, history, literature, politics, philosophy, gymnastics, love, religion, teaching, and transcribing. The book does not have a plot so much as a cycle of repetitions. A typical chapter begins with Bouvard writing his banker to send books on his latest obsession, which he and Pécuchet utterly misunderstand. (“The problem with reading,” warns Blanchot, “is the reader.” He probably had this book in mind.) They set about putting their wrongheaded expertise to use, attracting acolytes from a nearby village of colorfully stupid rustics, whose enthusiasm curdles into rage when Bouvard and Pécuchet plunge them all into scandal. Depressed, the heroes mope, but they quickly recover and, bursting with enthusiasm, announce a new obsession and send for more supplies. Like us, when inspired, they go shopping.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Adam Novy

Adam Novy teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list