Monday, July 16, 2012

Knowledge Workers

Bouvard and Pécuchet Review of Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert

Philip Roth has argued that if one takes more than two weeks to read a novel, one hasn't really read the novel. I don't know if Roth would allow an extra week or two for Don Quixote, War and Peace or Finnegans Wake but I suspect he wouldn't as he's pretty old and set in his ways at this point. In any case, under that definition, I haven't really read Bouvard and Pécuchet. It's taken me almost a year to finish it, and it isn't nearly as long or as difficult as any of my proposed exceptions to Roth's rule.

Last summer, I found a copy of Bouvard and Pécuchet among stacks of books in a cabin in northern Wisconsin. This happened a few weeks after Andy Holden's art installation, Chewy Cosmos Thingly Time, made me aware of Gustave Flaubert's final work about the intellectual misadventures of two Parisian copy clerks. A fabricated library within the Chewy Cosmos Thingly Time exhibit included rugs that contained amusing lines from Bouvard and Pécuchet stitched into the design. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

I started reading the novel late that summer and had finished about half of it by the end of autumn. Then I got distracted by other books, and I didn't get around to returning to its pages until at least six months later. I read the second half of it this summer in short bursts while also reading other books, chiefly works by Roberto Bolaño.

The length of time it took me to read this book, and Roth's rule invalidating my having actually read it, strike me as relevant because Bouvard and Pécuchet is largely concerned with the nature of knowledge and its virtues, limitations, legitimacy, and ultimate value. Flaubert described his final work as "a kind of encyclopedia turned into a farce," a description that would also fit with another book I recently finished (within Roth's timeframe, I believe), Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño.

The novel chronicles its titular characters attempts to learn about agriculture, gardening, and food after having moved to the countryside to live on an estate. The complication is that with each subject they attempt to learn, they find they must learn more about a prerequisite subject in order to better understand what they're doing. So when they fail at gardening, they decide they must learn about chemistry. This pattern repeats with variations throughout the book.

When I described the book's plot to a friend recently, he said it pretty much sounds like his life. And in a way, Flaubert has constructed the perfect satire of all of us who wish to know more. This is a novel about the pitfalls of learning, of questioning, of thirsting for understanding, of unquenchable intellectual appetites. As a clergyman says to Pécuchet, "Anyone who tries to get to the bottom of everything is sliding down a dangerous slope."

Flaubert offers a ruthless, almost hateful parody of bourgeois stupidity, but where the work succeeds most is in showing a comic empathy for the vain yet utterly human quest to make some sense of the world. Flaubert japes about our idiotic attempts to make a messy and imperfect match of thought and experience but only because he takes the challenge of doing just that so seriously.

Ultimately, we may see through Bouvard and Pécuchet's misadventures that ignorance is the foundation of knowledge, that forgetting this fact is folly, and that one can only hope to truly know and understand the vast and unrelenting ignorance of humanity itself. This may seem to be a grim diagnosis but it helps that the novel is frequently hilarious.

Unfortunately, Gustave Flaubert died before he was able to complete Bouvard and Pécuchet. The main text ends rather abruptly, in the middle of a scene of preparation for a lecture the protagonists plan to give the townspeople of Chavignolles. In the Penguin Classics addition I read (or didn't read, according to Philip Roth), what follows is Flaubert's rough plan for the denouement of the book. I found it frustrating to read this brief sketch because it presented such an excellent conclusion yet there is no way to ever read the actual prose of the thing since Flaubert never got to write it down.

Michael Cunningham recently touched on the subject of incomplete works in a piece for the New Yorker in which he describes the process of helping pick the three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He defends his selection of an unfinished novel, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, by citing Chaucer, who completed only half of The Canterbury Tales before dying, along with the incomplete fragments of ancient Greek and Latin poetry that continue to influence literary culture to this day.

As an unreconstructed cinephile, I would add the oeuvre of Orson Welles to the list of incomplete but brilliant artworks since so many of his movies were prevented from being completed by the studios and other outside forces. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has even suggested that he deliberately leaves his movies incomplete so that the viewer may complete each one herself.

Despite this contrarianism, I still find it deeply unsatisfying to come to the end of Flaubert's last novel and find bullet points instead of the jocular, exquisite prose that characterized the rest of the book. The unfinished work is an intriguing subject, but I'm not sure I can be persuaded by Kiarostami or anyone else to idealize it. Though I'd certainly like to hear Pécuchet discuss the matter with Bouvard. Fanfiction anyone?

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