Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 7, 2010

19th century sit-com

Bouvard and Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert , tr. Mark Polizzotti (2005), 328 pp. incl. “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” and “Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas”

Are you comfortable laughing out loud when you read in public? If you don’t mind doing that, then this is a perfect book for a long trip by plane, train, ocean liner, or rocket ship. If you do mind, then close your windows, lock your doors, and turn off the phone. Otherwise people will think you’ve gone mad.

This is a great book. And who’d have thought that Madame Bovary‘s author could create something so deliciously silly?

Two clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet (their names make me think of boulevard and peccadillo) come into some money and retire so that they can try out some harebrained schemes. Through them, Flaubert is able to satirize intellectual crazes of his day (if I recall correctly, the reviewer figured this was very nearly a revenge fantasy).

The two men open a school, start a farm, study medicine, enter politics, etc. And, really, who hasn’t dreamed of taking similar steps? First, you read everything you can get your hands on about your new endeavor (these days, you search the web), then buy all requisite tools and equipment, then you just do it.

Excerpts fail to give the true flavor of the humor here–I’d have to include entire chapters, because the silliness builds as Bouvard and Pécuchet earnestly get interested in a new pursuit, do their research, start the project, and inevitably fail. These guys are eternal optimists, never expecting that the next endeavor will end up like the previous one.

If nothing else, read this as an object lesson on the effects of a little bit of knowledge.


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