Off they go, like so many investment bankers reinventing themselves as cheesemakers or syrup sappers in Vermont. They use part of the inheritance to purchase a hundred-acre farm in Calvados, where they settle in for the duration. The duration of what? They’re not quite sure, and pretty soon begin to plant small crops, which fail; raise poultry and livestock, which die; make preserves, which spoil; brew speciality beers, which make them sick. They grow interested in chemistry, then medicine, then geology, then local history, then historical fiction. When the Revolution of 1848 comes, they get caught up in local politics with an enthusiasm matched only by their ignorance. Having failed at politics, they try love; after failing at love, they set out to improve their physiques through gymnastics; after failing at gymnastics, they turn to spiritualism. And so it goes.
The novel’s punchline, repeated over and over again, is that with every setback, the clerks send away for more books and guides to instruct them on how to plant or brew or stretch. The copyists may escape the office, but they can’t escape their nature. Even left to roam free in the countryside, they continue to copy, copy, copy. Flaubert famously boasted in a letter to Edma Roger des Genettes that he had taken notes on over fifteen hundred books in an effort to make his characters’ ignorance more realistic. Six years were spent on Volume 1 alone. Volume 2, never completed, was to consist entirely of the notes made by the characters in the course of their research.
“Idiots—those who think differently from you,” Flaubert wrote in the Dictionary of Received Ideas, a work that substituted for the unfinished Volume 2. The irony, or one of them anyway, is that the idiots in this case were those who resembled him, as he spent his last years copying, copying, copying those fifteen hundred volumes. The irony may not have been lost on Flaubert, but too often it’s lost on us. If Bartleby is a reflection on the shortage of solidarity in the world of paperwork, Bouvard and Pécuchet is an example of this shortage. Even Flaubert seems to be laughing at his characters, rather than with them. He can’t quite bring himself to recognize that his own prose might bear some resemblance to theirs. In the novel we witness writing struggling to rescue itself, its sense of itself, from the shame of more practical, and thus more vulgar forms of literacy.
In a marvelous essay published some years ago in The Threepenny Review, the literary critic Rachel Cohen considered the careers of two great poet-clerks, Fernando Pessoa and Constantine Cavafy. The latter had spent over three decades working as a translator for the British colonial administration in the offices of the Third Circle of Irrigation. Cohen cites an interview with one of his fellow clerks, a man named Ibrahim el Kayar, who described how Cavafy would occasionally lock the door to his office: “Sometimes my colleague and I looked through the keyhole. We saw him lift up his hands like an actor and put on a strange expression as if in ecstasy, then he would bend down to write something. It was the moment of inspiration. Naturally we found it funny and we giggled. How were we to imagine that one day Mr. Cavafy would be famous!”
How indeed? We naturally assume that these dramatic gestures, these ecstatic expressions, represent moments of poetic inspiration. The locked room, the voyeuristic gaze, the clerks’ astonishment provide further evidence in favor of what we already know, what we already think we know, that in this scene the poet-clerk is a poet rather than a clerk. We are witnessing an act of creation, not an act of re-creation. Nobody in their right mind would expend that much effort on mere paperwork.
Except, of course, for all of us who do just that.
Image: Thomas Demand, "Büro / Office," 1995.
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