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g u s tav e f l a u b e rt

Bouvard and Pécuchet

I
N AN ESSAY he contributed to the October 1956 issue of Cahiers
du Cinéma, Jean Domarchi mentioned how modish the writings
of Gustave Flaubert were with ‘the progressives’ (p. 238). Jean-
Luc Godard could count himself among Domarchi’s contemporaries
who were enamoured with Gustave Flaubert. In the previous issue of
Cahiers Godard had made the first of several references to Flaubert
that occur throughout his critical writings. When Godard thought
of Flaubert, however, he did not necessarily think of Madame Bovary.
Godard’s claim that Flaubert ‘can’t tell stories’ suggests that he had a
different work in mind (p. 223). Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert’s great
unfinished novel, best represents how Godard understood Flaubert.
Bouvard and Pécuchet satirises the adventures of the book’s epon-
ymous duo, who become fast friends and move to a small town in
the country, where they embark on a self-directed program of study
touching nearly every branch of knowledge. Agriculture, anatomy,
archaeology, architecture, astronomy, gardening, geology, history,
philosophy: there hardly seems a field of study they do not find fas-
cinating. They satisfy their encyclopaedic curiosity in many ways,
few of which turn out well. Their interest in history, for example,
leads them to search for the psychology underlying it. This misguid-
ed quest prompts them to read the historical novels of Alexandre
Dumas and Sir Walter Scott for answers. Generally speaking, their
intellectual quest lets Flaubert expose the fundamental dangers in-
volved in the bookish pursuit of wisdom.
As Flaubert died before he could finish the novel, the ending
he intended is uncertain. In one set of notes, the townsfolk, hav-
ing become increasingly enraged by Messrs Bouvard and Pécuchet,
attempt to force them out of town or have them committed to an
asylum. As part of the book, Flaubert had planned to include an ex-
tended sample of the notes his two characters transcribe, which partly
survives as ‘The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas’, a mock glossary pub-
lished as an appendix to the narrative. Flaubert’s humorous glossary
contains many memorable definitions. The word ‘poet’, for instance,
he defines as a ‘synonym for dreamer and ninny’ (2005, p. 317).
Bouvard et Pécuchet: oeuvre posthume. Paris: Alphonse Lemerre,
1881.
aaa Reading with Jean-Luc Godard

In his first published reference to Flaubert, Godard uses Bouvard


and Pécuchet as a touchstone to understand Artists and Models, a film
directed by Frank Tashlin and starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis:
No film could be more devastating, more bitter in its humour,
more brackish, with the richness of the invention constantly
aggravated by the poverty of the situations, with the uneasy
spectator at first forcing an unwilling laugh, then feeling
ashamed, laughing again mechanically, seized in a pitiless mesh
of imbecilities, and ending by roaring with laughter because it
isn’t funny at all. It is, in other words, an acme of stupidity, but
an acme in the same way as Bouvard and Pécuchet (p. 36).
Godard’s remarks about Artists and Models gloss his understanding of
Bouvard and Pécuchet. It, too, is bitter in its humour. It, too, reflects
its creator’s richness of invention, despite the poverty of the work’s
situations. Bouvard and Pécuchet can similarly be termed a ‘pitiless
mesh of imbecilities’, but it is one that elicits gales of laughter. Bou-
vard and Pécuchet are the progenitors of a series of witless duos that
recur throughout popular culture, including Martin and Lewis.
Bouvard and Pécuchet embodies a fair amount of ambiguity, which
may be a deliberate aesthetic device on its author’s part, but which
may also reflect less intentional motives. The novel’s unfinished sta-
tus contributes to its ambiguity. So does its author’s shifting pur-
pose. Bouvard and Pécuchet began as a satire of two oafs who pursue
knowledge without purpose, having little hope of mastering what
they seek. Over the course of its composition, Flaubert started sym-
pathising with his characters, who themselves become saddened by
stupidity. JORGE LUIS BORGES has identified the point in the novel
‘in which the dreamer, to use a kindred metaphor, notes that he is
dreaming and that the forms of his dream are himself’ (p. 387). From
this point Flaubert’s satire of the stupidity of others takes on the
quality of a self-satire, but, in so doing, the work’s satirical edges
soften. Bouvard and Pécuchet, who had begun as objects of their
author’s scorn, become quite endearing. Their affection for one an-
other transcends the vanity of their fruitless intellectual pursuit.
As an unfinished work, Bouvard and Pécuchet is an introduction
without a conclusion. It foreshadows the modernist pleasure in the
indefinite, the diffuse and the fragmentary. Borges finds the absence
of a conclusion absolutely appropriate: ‘The time of Bouvard and
Pécuchet tends toward eternity’ (p. 389). The book’s incomplete nature
G U S TAV E F L AU B E RT aaa

opens the possibility for others, including Godard, to continue the


story. Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967) includes two slovenly
young men named Bouvard (Claude Miller) and Pécuchet (Jean-
Patrick Lebel). The two characters appear late in the film as part
of the long Elysée-Marbeuf café sequence. They are seated behind
a large table piled high with paperback books. Bouvard selects one
book after another at random and reads aloud from their texts. Pé-
cuchet writes what Bouvard reads. The texts provide a mix of crime
novels, philosophical tracts, spy novels and travelogues. Together
these two essentially re-enact and update the behaviour of Flaubert’s
title characters.
Although the scene in Deux ou trois choses carries over Flaubert’s
spoof of the meaningless pursuit of knowledge, it also constitutes a
self-satire on Godard’s part, as Alfred Guzzetti has observed in his
shot-by-shot analysis of the film. After all, Godard himself loves to
quote from a hodgepodge of miscellaneous sources, books and films.
He has often boasted about his penchant for quotation, and friends
have commented on his habit of reading briefly from the beginnings
and the endings of books, leaving most of their texts unread. Like
Bouvard and Pécuchet, Deux ou trois choses is open-ended. The two
men in the Elysée-Marbeuf café sequence may parody the pursuit of
knowledge without purpose, but the texts they recite and transcribe,
though seemingly meaningless, need not remain so. Godard has of-
ten slipped a written text into a film that he develops and elaborates
in a later one. Knowledge gained without purpose is knowledge in
search of purpose.
Kevin J. Hayes
Gustave Flaubert. Bouvard et Pécuchet, 1947.
———. Bouvard and Pécuchet. 2005.
Jorge Luis Borges. A Defence of Bouvard and Pécuchet <1954>, 2000.
Jean Domarchi. Knife in the Wound <1956>, 1985.
Jean-Luc Godard. Let’s Talk about Pierrot <1965>, 1986.
Alfred Guzzetti. Two or Three Things I Know about Her, 1981.