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Bouvard and Pecuchet with The Dictionary of Received Ideas (Penguin Classics) Paperback – June 24, 1976
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Text: English, French (translation)
About the Author
Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen in 1821, the son of a prominent physician. A solitary child, he was attracted to literature at an early age, and after his recovery from a nervous breakdown suffered while a law student, he turned his total energies to writing. Aside from journeys to the Near East, Greece, Italy, and North Africa, and a stormy liaison with the poetess Louise Colet, his life was dedicated to the practice of his art. The form of his work was marked by intense aesthetic scrupulousness and passionate pursuit of le mot juste; its content alternately reflected scorn for French bourgeois society and a romantic taste for exotic historical subject matter. The success of Madame Bovary (1857) was ensured by government prosecution for “immorality”; Salammbô (1862) and The Sentimental Education (1869) received a cool public reception; not until the publication of Three Tales (1877) was his genius popularly acknowledged. Among fellow writers, however, his reputation was supreme. His circle of friends included Turgenev and the Goncourt brothers, while the young Guy de Maupassant underwent an arduous literary apprenticeship under his direction. Increasing personal isolation and financial insecurity troubled his last years. His final bitterness and disillusion were vividly evidenced in the savagely satiric Bouvard and Pécuchet, left unfinished at his death in 1880.
Dr. A.J. Krailsheimer was born in 1921 and was Tutor in French at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1957 until his retirement in 1988. His publications are Studies in Self-Interest (1963), Rabelais and the Franciscans (1965), Three Conteurs of the Sixteenth Century (1966), Rabelais (1967), A. J. de Rancé, Abbot of La Trappe (1974), Pascal (1980), Conversion (1980), Letters of A. J. de Rancé (1984), Rancé and the Trappist Legacy (1985) and Correspondance de Rancé (1993). He has also translated Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Salammbo and Pascal’s The Provincial Letters for the Penguin Classics.
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Is Flaubert's last novel the 19th century FINNEGAN'S WAKE?--i.e., the result of the writer's obsession without any regard to readability? Or is it the final masterpiece of arguably the greatest French novelist of the 19th century?
Flaubert read hundreds of books to prepare for writing BOUVARD, much as he had when writing SALAMMBO. He wanted him dim-witted "woodlice" (his own word for the protagonists) to be as correctly, if uselessly, erudite as possible.
Is the book "funny"? If you think irony and cynical parody are funny, you may think so. Myself, I think pathos overwhelms wit throughout. The anti-heroic pair elicit sympathy more than laughter from me. Their useless wish to become authorities in various subjects come a cropper (including their attempts at agronomy) and they end up as copying clerks, their professions before they retired to their futile pursuit of knowledge.
Their fatal flaw is believing that knowing the "facts" (counting ideas as "facts") will make you the masters in any area. Like Homais (in BOVARY), they consider that cliches and bits of information are "knowledge". They, like he, are perfect bourgeois, the species of human that Flaubert loathed--and I suppose you could say he was a misanthrope because he considered almost everyone bourgeois, excepting artists like himself.
So is BOUVARD a final masterpiece or a blackly cynical screed against humanity?
If you consider that hatred of the bourgeois mind was Flaubert's main subject in all his books, I'd say BOUVARD is a kind of culmination of the theme. Myself, I prefer BOVARY and SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, but I'd definitely say BOUVARD is a shadowy third.
What is comic is the very incomplete DICTIONARY OF RECEIVED IDEAS that follows the novel. You can imagine all of these "idees" spoken by Homais, the arch-bourgeois, and read this way many of them are very funny.
I wish the book was available in hardcover and on nicer paper because it is a worthy addition to the library. Oh my. Yes, the library.
The dictionary at the back will give you a few good laughs and is worth the price even if you never read the book!