Friday, May 6, 2011

Then a pitiable faculty developed itself in their minds

In his Guardian review, Steven Poole compares the comic protagonists in Lars Iyer's Spurious to Bouvard and Pécuchet in Flaubert's last, unfinished novel:

If Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet had just sat around bitching instead of investigating the world's knowledge, the result would have resembled this novel. It is a tiny marvel of comically repetitive gloomery.
Although, when I read Spurious, so many other comic duos suggested themselves to me, as they have to others -- duos such as Laurel and Hardy, and Vladimir and Estragon -- I had also thought of Bouvard and Pécuchet, if only for the physical echo of these two Flaubertian buffoons, with their mismatched figures and outlandish clothes. Even the inexplicable, unstoppable damp in Lars's flat recalls the dust, the stains and the airlessness of Pécuchet's place in Paris and, later, the gradual disintegration of the country house in Normandy.

While Bouvard and Pécuchet investigate one discipline after another through a great number of books -- with the exception, as Raymond Queneau is said to have observed, of mathematics -- W. and Lars in Spurious circle through philosophy, messianic studies, the films of Béla Tarr and the problem of Kafka -- or more specifically, Kafka and Brod (and, as if to outdo his grand-sires Bouvard and Pécuchet, W. makes continual attempts to teach himself complex mathematics). In Spurious, Iyer, like Flaubert, seems to be centrally, even anxiously concerned with stupidity:

'Do you think it's possible to die of stupidity?' W. sighs. 'Not as a consequence of that stupidity', he notes, 'but from stupidity and shame', W. asks me, 'do you think you could die of shame, I mean literally die?' (Spurious p. 11)
Then a pitiable faculty developed itself in their minds, that of observing stupidity and no longer tolerating it. Trifling things made them feel sad: the advertisements in the newspapers, the profile of a shopkeeper, an idiotic remark overheard by chance. Thinking over what was said in their own village, and on the fact that there were even as far as the Antipodes other Coulons, other Marescots, other Foureaus, they felt, as it were, the heaviness of all the earth weighing down upon them. (Bouvard and Pécuchet chapter 8)
Strangely, the free Project Gutenberg English version of Bouvard and Pécuchet, or perhaps I should say the 1904 edition copyright by M. Walter Dunne which Project Gutenberg is using, finishes at the end of this chapter: where the characters, at the point of stringing themselves up, spy through the skylight in their garret an alluring scene that leads them to the almost stage-lit spectacle of the village in prayer in the church for Christmas Eve:

Their breasts swelled with sobs. They leaned against the skylight to take breath.

The air was chilly and a multitude of stars glittered in a sky of inky blackness.

The whiteness of the snow that covered the earth was lost in the haze of the horizon.

They perceived, close to the ground, little lights, which, as they drew near, looked larger, all reaching up to the side of the church.

Curiosity drove them to the spot. It was the midnight mass. These lights came from shepherds' lanterns. Some of them were shaking their cloaks under the porch.

The serpent snorted; the incense smoked. Glasses suspended along the nave represented three crowns of many-coloured flames; and, at the end of the perspective at the two sides of the tabernacle, immense wax tapers were pointed with red flames. Above the heads of the crowd and the broad-brimmed hats of the women, beyond the chanters, the priest could be distinguished in his chasuble of gold. To his sharp voice responded the strong voices of the men who filled up the gallery, and the wooden vault quivered above its stone arches. The walls were decorated with the stations of the Cross. In the midst of the choir, before the altar, a lamb was lying down, with its feet under its belly and its ears erect.

The warm temperature imparted to them both a strange feeling of comfort, and their thoughts, which had been so tempestuous only a short time before, became peaceful, like waves when they are calmed.

They listened to the Gospel and the Credo, and watched the movements of the priest. Meanwhile, the old, the young, the beggar women in rags, the mothers in high caps, the strong young fellows with tufts of fair down on their faces, were all praying, absorbed in the same deep joy, and saw the body of the Infant Christ shining, like a sun, upon the straw of a stable. This faith on the part of others touched Bouvard in spite of his reason, and Pécuchet in spite of the hardness of his heart.

There was a silence; every back was bent, and, at the tinkling of a bell, the little lamb bleated.

The host was displayed by the priest, as high as possible between his two hands. Then burst forth a strain of gladness inviting the whole world to the feet of the King of Angels. Bouvard and Pécuchet involuntarily joined in it, and they felt, as it were, a new dawn rising in their souls.

It is extraordinary to consider the possibility of a novice Anglophone Flaubert reader getting to the end of this e-book of Bouvard and Pécuchet -- a book not easily available in print, unlike Madame Bovary or A Sentimental Education or Three Tales -- and interpreting the book and, perhaps, the whole of Flaubert's work, from such an ending that was never meant to be an ending: such a piece of pure and deliberate kitsch. The French Project Gutenberg e-book, although also unfinished because Flaubert never completed the work, continues on for two more chapters, through the inevitable religious phase into the frustrations of trying to educate the two young beggars, Victor and Victorine -- in itself a testament to the long, sad vanity of Bouvard and Pécuchet's attempts to teach themselves about the world.

For all we know, Lars Iyer's project with Lars and W. may never be completed either. Spurious, we read on the back of the book, will be followed by Dogma in 2012, but in the intervening time, any readers anxious to find more of the lugubrious, whimsical wit of this seemingly highly educated but still very much baffled Bouvard and Pécuchet -- conspicuous in their floral shirts among crowds of slender people in black, as they say -- can always look to the originating blog.

The false ending of the Project Gutenberg English edition of Bouvard and Pécuchet -- the Christmas kitsch epiphany of this seemingly last and crowning scene -- points to something which troubles Flaubert and Iyer: both troubles and intrigues. Stupidity and happiness have long been bedfellows, as Flaubert once very famously observed to Louise Colet:

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health: these are the three requirements for happiness, although if the first is missing, all is lost.

Etre bête, égoïste, et avoir une bonne santé, voilà les trois conditions voulues pour être heureux ; mais si la première nous manque, tout est perdu.  (Lettres à Louise Colet, Jeudi soir, 11 heures. 6 Août 1846)
No matter how hard W. (via Lars the narrator) might insist that he and Lars are both stupid and happy -- in short, that they are Brod, and not Kafka as they might have longed to be -- the narrative pushes past any possibility of an alluring, deadening, blissful stasis. Just to state such a thing in all conviction is to enact a paradox -- to move the writing on:

'These are the last days', says W. 'It's all finished. Everything's so shit', says W., 'but we're happy -- why is that? Because we're puerile', he says. 'Because we're inane. It saves us', W. says, 'but it also condemns us'. (p. 75)
The novel ends with W. declaring that they are lost, but it is in the infinity of their 'chatter', their friendship and the result -- the writing -- in which they (and we, the readers) are lost:

W. wonders whether we too have discovered the infinite in our own way. Our incessant chatter. Our incessant feeling of utter failure. Perhaps we live on our own version of the plain, W. muses. Am I the plain on which he is lost, or vice versa? But perhaps the plain is the friendship between us on which we are both lost, he says. (p. 188)


  1. Hi jen. Fascinating post about deliberate kitsch. Though I'm not familiar with the books you are discussing. For clarification: Is the deficiency due to, in both cases, the writers have begun from a premise of everyone's stupidity? Or more along the lines of talking endlessly around a central idea, instead of having successfully been able to convey it without all the chatter? Sounds like the books under question are taking conceits and treating them with (comic) gravity, something Kafka would never have done. Thanks, Steve.

  2. Hi Steve. The deliberate kitsch is really only in Flaubert's work - deliberate in that he is fascinated by the way certain hackneyed, over-wrought experiences actually move people and gleefully likes to describe this process (rf. Madame Bovary). I think this links to his lifelong obsession/ fascination with stupidity. One of his early letters to his friend Ernest Chevalier (when he was 9 years old) has him suggesting that they collaborate in their writing: 'I'll write comedies and you can write your dreams, and since there's a lady who comes to see papa and always says stupid things I'll write them too.' I think in Flaubert's case, he does begin from a premise of everyone's stupidity. Iyer is different - completely different. I think his writing is fuelled by an anxiety - in this case not really very far from the anxiety that fuels Kafka's work - but there is also the anxiety of epigonism in Iyer's work (a very contemporary anxiety) - and the characters parry any accusations by using sharper attacks on themselves - or should I say the narrator Lars reports W. doing so. I don't think this obsession with stupidity is a deficiency in either author (even though George Sand used to think it was re Flaubert, and told him so).

  3. Thanks for the clarification jen. Your post couldn't have come at a better time. After reading it I came across an essay by Linda Nochlin where she argues for how Delacroix's orientalism isn't kitsch, while others, depicting such things as slave markets and snake charmers, was. With this in mind it would be interesting to take another look at Flaubert's Egypt. Baudelaire too, who voyaged to the orient and back and produced his jewels based on those memories, but even though arguably overwrought, he managed to avoid kitsch with his poetry. How, is the question. One of the things Barbara Johnson was arguing for was how effectively Baudelaire used cliche - cliche to the 19th century, though poetry to us - all to the advantage of the book. You've given us a lot to think about: Thanks.

  4. Flaubert's Egypt: now that is another thing. I have only read his letters from Egypt, which I very much enjoyed. Sometime last year I started Salammbô, admittedly only only the e-book version, and couldn't continue. I was over-whelmed by the exotic -- what seemed to be a kitsch of exoticism -- the kind of kitsch which has caramelised much Anglophone fiction and non-fiction in recent decades, but after reading your comment re Baudelaire, I've realised I should trust Flaubert a little more and give it another go (at least to see where it leads). Thank you too, Steve.