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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Bouvard et Pecuchet


_Bouvard et Pecuchet._]

Little need be said of the posthumous torso and failure,[402] _Bouvard et Pecuchet_. Nothing ever showed the wisdom of the proverb about half-done work, children and fools, better; and, alas! there is something of the child in all of us, and something of the fool in too many. It was to be a sort of extended and varied _Education_, not _Sentimentale_. Two men of retired leisure and sufficient income resolve to spend the rest of their lives "in books and work and healthful play," and almost as many other recreative occupations (including "teaching the young idea how to shoot") as they or you can think of. But the work generally fails, the books bore and disappoint them, the young ideas shoot in the most "divers and disgusting" ways, and the play turns out to be by no means healthful. Part of it is in scenario merely; and Flaubert was wont to alter so much, that one cannot be sure even of the other and more finished part. Perhaps it was too large and too dreary a theme, unsupported by any real novel quality, to acquire even that interest which _L'Education Sentimentale_ has for some. But the more excellent way is to atone for the mistake of his literary executors, in not burning all of it except the monumental phrase quoted above,

Ainsi tout leur a craque dans la main,

by simply remembering this--which is the initial and conclusion of the whole matter--and

letting the rest pass.

There is one slight danger in the estimate of Flaubert to which, though I actually pointed it out, I think I may have succumbed a little when I first wrote about him. He is so great a master of literature that one may be led to concentrate attention on this; and if not to neglect, to regard somewhat inadequately, his greatness as a novelist. Here at any rate such failure would be petty, if not even high, treason.

[Sidenote: General considerations.]

One may look at his performance in the novel from two points of view--that of "judging by the result" simply and in the fashion of a summing-up; and that of bringing him under certain ticket-qualifications, and enquiring whether they are justly applicable to him or not. I need hardly tell any one who has done me the honour to read either this or any other critical work of mine, which of these two I think the more excellent way; but the less excellent in this particular instance, may demand a little following.

Was Flaubert a Romantic? Was he a Realist? Was he a Naturalist? This is how the enquiries come in chronological order. But for convenience of discussion the first should be postponed to the others.

"Realist," like a good many other tickets, is printed on both sides, and the answer to our question will be by no means the same whichever side be looked at. That Flaubert was a Realist "in the best sense of the term" has been again and again affirmed in the brief reviews of his novels given above. He cannot be unreal--the "convincingness" of his most sordid as of his most splendid passages; of his most fantastic _diableries_ as of his most everyday studies of society; is unsurpassed. It is, in fact, his chief characteristic. But this very fact that it _pervades_--that it is as conspicuous in the _Tentation_ and in _Saint Julien l'Hospitalier_ as in _Madame Bovary_ and the _Education_--at once throws up a formidable, I think an impregnable, line of defence against those who would claim him for "Realism" of the other kind--the cult of the ugly, because, being ugly, it is more real than the beautiful. He has no fear of ugliness, but he cultivates the ugly because it is the real, not the real because it is the ugly. Being to a great extent a satirist and (despite his personal boyishness) saturnine rather than jovial in temperament, there is a good deal in him that is _not_ beautiful. But he can escape into beauty whenever he chooses, and in these escapes he is always at his best.

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