BY MICHAEL MEJIA
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
Of course, if you’re going to be stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life, or if you know that such a catastrophe (or adventure) is about to occur—or has the potential to occur because the journey on which you’re about to embark is dangerous, probably foolish, and the crew looks somewhat sketchy, and the ship itself (or plane or zeppelin) is patched together from salvaged parts, and you’ve forgotten to tell anyone at home exactly where you’re going (I’ve done this twice already and I was underprepared both times: Hoyle’s was not a good choice, let me tell you)—you want to pack accordingly. I’d probably want to select the longest and most desirable read I haven’t read yet, Remembrance of Things Past, the whole damn thing, which, I think, would suit me just fine, and I can imagine myself living quite happily, actually, reclining with my Proust beneath a lone palm—please God let there be at least one palm—alternately reading and dozing, as I am wont to do, a shard of coconut serving as my own madeleine, my own catalyst for reflections on the past and time and memory and loss, of which there will be plenty.
But then, this seems a bit too melancholy. I mean, sure, it’s a deserted island, and I’m all alone, but it’s also a beach for God’s sake, all the way around, so I should try to enjoy myself a bit more. And all of Proust feels a little like cheating. Not that that really matters, I guess, but just for kicks let’s say that the overhead bin of my vessel–rickety ship, plane, zeppelin, etc.–just isn’t big enough for me to bring all of Proust. So then I might choose Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a truly beautiful little book, a novella, really, but, again, we’re talking about a deserted island— “no phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury” –and the rest of my life, nothing but time and water, sun and sand, so novellas, however much I love them, and I do love them, are kind of too short for this fate. Though I’ve no doubt that I could stand to read Pedro Páramo over and over, it’s that good.
So, a novel. A single volume, sure, that doesn’t take too much space in the overhead storage bin, but is also somehow bigger than it looks and also unfinishable. Maybe even infinite. Borges probably wrote that novel, or wrote a fiction about someone named Borges who wrote that novel, and I’d probably be ecstatic to find myself with Borges on my deserted island, but actually I think what I really want in an unfinishable novel is not that it be infinitely long but just incomplete. Thankfully, I’ve got a lot to choose from here, from The Satyricon to Amerika to The Pale King. But I’m going with Gustave Flaubert’s final work.
Bouvard and Pécuchet is the story of “two nobodies,” middle-aged copy clerks–one short, one tall, and so on–who meet by chance one summer afternoon in Paris, and their discovery of their common habit of writing their names in their hats leads to a kind of whirlwind romance. “What we call ‘love at first sight,'” Flaubert writes, “holds true for all sorts of passions.” In this case, that passion is knowing, which Bouvard and Pécuchet attempt to indulge prodigiously thanks to a miraculous windfall that allows them to retire early to a farm in Normandy.
Agriculture, the natural sciences, archaeology, history, literature, politics, love, gymnastics, philosophy, religion, pedagogy, social reform: Flaubert’s nobodies gorge themselves on books, believing that their capricious self-education, accompanied by a series of disastrous experiments and expeditions–some hilarious, others ghastly, even sadistic (as when they hope to test a theory of magnetization by jamming needles into a dog’s spine)–will fulfill not just their boundless curiosity, but also what they feel is their equally boundless capacity to know it all. Rather than becoming enlightened, Bouvard and Pécuchet, completely lacking the imaginative faculty required for synthesis, are continually frustrated by their “experts'” multiplicity of views and interpretations, which they wish so desperately would align. When they reach what they perceive to be an impassable thicket of contradictions or inadequacies in the literature or their tools, they give up, declaring the subject hopeless, and turn to something else.
In Flaubert’s sketches of the final chapters, Bouvard and Pécuchet, exasperated, return to copying, this time “whatever falls into their hands,” a task that was ultimately supposed to produce two addenda: “The Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas” and “The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas,” the latter a “compendium of stupidities” (i.e. “MODESTY: A woman’s most beautiful adornment”) that Flaubert actually completed in 1850.
Flaubert’s satire of the stupidity of social, scientific, and religious dogmas and platitudes of progress–still relevant today–is said to have been on his mind for over 30 years. During the 6 years he was actually writing it (he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1880), he claimed to have read at least 1500 books for research. “Did [Flaubert] toil so long to demonstrate the vanity of knowledge as exploited by his two self-educated heroes,” Italo Calvino asks. “Or was it to demonstrate the vanity of knowledge pure and simple?” Whether intentional or not, the latter seems to have become the book’s project as Flaubert gradually found himself, as I do, merging sympathetically with his endearingly, tragically, even criminally, earnest protagonists who are willing to sacrifice everything–their health, their neighbors, their environment–in the name of certainty, of something like an ending. Because this is what I take to be the meaning of “knowledge” in Calvino’s question: not a reservoir of useful information, a power to be exerted toward an act of creation, but a shutting down of possibility, an enervating and ignorant satisfaction.
We may howl or cringe at Bouvard and Pécuchet’s often violent attempts to shape the world to every expert’s interpretation in succession–a shtick that, as translator Mark Polizzoti points out, creates a dangerously repetitive narrative structure–but we might also choose to see this literally endless cycle as an otherwise hopeful model of the equally endless generative and creative potential of curiosity, a kind of base wonder present in Bouvard and Pécuchet before they’re given the unbounded leisure to cultivate their whims, before their comic fall, as it were:
They learned about discoveries, read prospectuses, and their newfound curiosity caused their intelligence to bloom. On a horizon that receded further each day, they glimpsed things at once strange and wondrous.
Maybe that blooming intelligence is meant ironically, but I see the same receding horizon every time I open my web browser.
Something else I appreciate about Bouvard and Pécuchet, and that makes it the ideal beach read for my own certain ending on my own deserted island—a situation that I would no doubt exploit as a kind of retreat for writing—please God let there be a stick for me to write with in the sand–oh, what a work that would be, needing to be rewritten every day after high tide, piling palimpsest on palimpsest–is the novel’s demonstration–unintentional, natch, may M. Flaubert rest in peace–of the significant pleasures of not ending, of the valuable narrative tactic of uncertainty, of not-knowing, of going continually and insistently to pieces instead of all-too-neatly wrapping up.