Madame Bovary is likely the best known of Flaubert’s works, but Bouvard and Pecuchet is considered by many who have read both, to be the better novel. Although I always approach unfinished novels with a little trepidation, the book’s description was intriguing so I took the chance. No regrets- it is the better novel.
Bouvard and Pecuchet are middle aged copy clerks who are thrown together by circumstances, and after discovering a common habit they quickly become friends and coconspirators in a life of leisure, learning, and what appears to be consistent failure. An inheritance funds their lifestyle, but it is their curiosity that drives their pursuit of knowledge.
The friends first embrace farming, and fail. They stumble through fields including philosophy, medicine, politics, education, and literature. They read continuously. They experiment. They discuss and debate. They stumble through one misadventure after another. They do have successes, but that only pushes them further until they fail, even in love.
At first, the novel appears to progress as a comedy of errors. But although Bouvard and Pecuchet appear to be fools, they are not, and there is much that we can learn from them, as Flaubert intended.
The new translation from Mark Polizzotti includes chapter outlines and fragments for additional chapters that were never completed. The novel is followed by Flaubert’s charming Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. A poorer translation of the Dictionary is available here.