As Flaubert aged, his books become broader comedy and this is the limit. Two petit French beurocrats, as indistinquishable as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, take early retirement in the country and decide to study all human knowledge. In Madame Bovary, traveling libraries add to the central figure's pretension and lead to her tragic downfall. Here, simply, the older and mellower Flaubert presents endless comedy -- and while Flaubert did not finish the book, doubtless it could only continue in the same vein. Mediocrity of mind and spirit cannot be cured by simply pouring in "facts" or trivial, amateurish experience, the reader is told, by one example after the next, and never by preaching as in Tolstoy. And Bouvard and Pecuchet have no teachers -- only the audacity to assume that all worth knowing is simply open to them by the act of reading. In any event, the real end of the book was finished -- "the dictionary of accepted ideas" -- which to these uninspired clowns seems the summit of all human wisdom.
Will droll, and vastly understated, the humor is only the more scathing when finally revealed, often in a scene reminiscent of Chaplin or silent comedy. Encountering this Flaubert masterpiece is greatly helped by a dead on translation that is pithy and precise, worthily replicating Flaubert's famous search for "the right word" in all his books. Even the drollest, plainest sentences resonate with humor -- never, incidentally, hateful or spiteful, but just sadly wise.