Bouvard et Pecuchét

Bouvard et Pecuchét was Gustave Flaubert’s last novel, and he left it unfinished upon his death in 1880. He had intended for it to be his masterpiece, surpassing all his other works, but on its posthumous release in 1881, critics were not impressed. It’s not for everyone’s taste, and the lack of a proper ending can be unsatisfying, but Flaubert was at the top of his game here – stylistically and structurally, it’s the pinnacle of his work, and it reveals (at the end of Flaubert’s writing career), his immense sense of humor, which can be surprising to anyone who has read Madame Bovary. The overall theme of the novel is supposed to be a commentary on the stupidity of humanity, but what I think critics miss in this novel is Flaubert’s amazement at how despite humans’ stupidity and the futility of their efforts, their endless curiosity, capacity for self-delusion, and boundless aspiration give them a sort of beauty and eternal quality that – though they may not be divine – are still significant in an uncaring universe. Flaubert famously claimed to have read 1500 books to write this, which is undoubtedly true, the guy was a maniac, and to the interested reader, it’s illuminating to see a sort of catalog of late 19th century knowledge; it may seem antiquated, but along with the dated segments on whale science in Moby Dick, it can cause one to be more skeptical of our own assumed conclusions about the world around us.

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