Bouvard and Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert (1881)

ImageBouvard and Pécuchet are copy clerks in Paris and good friends who enjoy discussing what seem to them serious ideas. When they come into a bit of money they retire to the country and proceed to indulge a series of obsessions: agronomy, archeology, literature, philosophy, religion, phrenology, pedagogy, sexuality, and so on. In each case they press on just enough to become a jack of the given trade but far from its master. Meanwhile their house crumbles around them. They are the types to become so engrossed discussing the nutritional composition of an ideal diet that they forget to eat their dinner. The book was unfinished when Flaubert died, but he left behind a plan which suggested that finally the two former copy clerks would choose to return to that pursuit. Instead of trying to implement all the ideas their scattershot reading had formerly led them to, they’d take the more direct route of pure recapitulation, simply compiling excerpts from pre-existing works into a compendium of received ideas. Just as Emma Bovary’s novels led her to mistake passion’s signs for passion, Bouvard and Pécuchet mistake the performance of erudition for knowledge.

Flaubert of course finds them fools. They know a great deal but understand nothing. They debate the merits of vegetarianism without noticing that they’re eating meat as they argue.

I confess to feeling a certain sympathy for them. Their struggle to ingest and be nourished by the overwhelming amount of information available to them reminds me of my own excitement and dread when I open my Google Reader feed, or contemplate the shelves of books I’ve yet to read. They may have seemed comic to Flaubert but they seem tragic to me.

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Ketchup

On sabbatical and taking my notes elsewhere, but here’s what’s been passing in front of my eyes.

Tarabas, Joseph Roth (1934). Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. A parable of eastern Europe’s transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries.

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel (2009). Up close account from embedded journalist during the “surge” of 2007. Mayer and Hersh remain the most impressive political accounts of the Iraq war; this book demonstrates better than any other I’ve read what it’s like to fight in Iraq.

In the Loop
, Armando Iannucci (2009). Not as fun as I thought it was going to be; the jokes are repetitive and eventually predictable. I was fixated on the mise-en-scène, which sometimes felt like that ersatz-documentary kind of The Office vibe and other times like a cool Michael Clayton slick.

Office Space
, Mike Judge (1999).
Idiocracy, Mike Judge (2006).
I was pleased to see these at last, after having realized how often they get referenced. They’re pretty dumb, but fun.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
, Phil Lord & Chris Miller (2009). Charming cartoon about believing in yourself and not wasting food.

The Curtain
, Milan Kundera (2007). A history of the novel, an argument for its importance, an education on nationalism, an intellectual memoir, and, here and there, a manual for being human. I stopped underlining because I was underlining everything.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
1830-1880, Francis Steegmuller, ed. (1980 & 1982). Went here at Kundera’s behest. Delicious, wicked, vital.

The Hurt Locker
, Kathryn Bigelow (2008). Yes, good, fine, and all the more reason to love Bigelow if you didn’t already, but kind of a disappointment for me, since I’ve been reading so much nonfiction about the war, and I chafed a bit at seeing the soldiers’ experiences shaped into a narrative and invested with pathos. The terrifying thing that Finkel (vide supra) makes so clear is that just because a tour of duty elapses over linear time, that doesn’t mean it’s a narrative. He shows how the soldiers struggle with that fact; when they’ve got a month left in their tours, they’re aching to have a sense of the story of the year, of progress made, crises resolved, etc., but that’s not how it works. All that said, this is a terrific movie; my complaint is basically based on the fact that it’s a movie, and that’s really not fair.

Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, Peter Jan Honigsberg (2009). Repetitive, smug, and unnecessary if you’ve read Philippe Sands’ Torture Team. A great disappointment. Massively dull and technocratic one minute, puffed up with bombastic indignation the next. Ugh. Big regret that I got it in hardcover.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland (2010). My thoughts here.

Also:
The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri (2004). Mannerist, but I like it.
Squandermania, Don Share (2007)
Deniability, George Witte (2008)
Factory of Tears, Valzhyna Mort (2008)
National Anthem, Kevin Prufer (2008). This is a terrific book.
On Crimes and Punishments, Cesare Beccaria (1764)
War Bird, David Gewanter (2009)