It is hard to believe that Emmanuel Bove’s debut novel, My Friends, was a major success, praised by such writers as Colette, Andre Gide and Rainer Maria Rilke, such is the obscurity into which his work later fell even in France. Armand was Bove’s second novel and, like his first, it focuses on life in the margins, ‘focus’ being a particularly apt description of Bove’s style given Samuel Beckett’s comment that he “has an instinct for the essential detail” (or “has the feeling for the touching detail” – as the comment was made in French, different English versions are available).

In Armand, originally published in 1927 and translated by Janet Louth fifty years later, Bove contrasts the title character’s comfortable existence with the poverty of an old friend, Lucien, whom he meets one day in the street. The meeting is uncomfortable for both of them:

“We were embarrassed, Lucien for having greeted me so familiarly and I for appearing annoyed by it. We remained motionless. I waited for him to speak. Seeing him so poorly clad, the years of misery I had experienced passed before my eyes again. I had gradually forgotten them. Now they were as clear as if no interval separated me from them.”

Bove’s sense of detail extends not only to Armand’s appraisal of his friend’s altered appearance but such signifiers of their separation as: “Our breath was exhaled in the cold air but not in unison.” Armand is embarrassed by his now comfortable existence (“I was ashamed of my warm overcoat and especially of my silk tie”) and Bove typically illustrates this in his actions as well as his thoughts:

“I pretended that I took no care of my clothes and when a drip fell on my coat I let it make a stain.”

Bove’s ability to enact the emotions of his characters is perhaps why his novels feel intensely ‘lived in’ – the internal lives of his narrators never feel abstract as he captures the tell-tale tics and gestures which reveal them to the outside world.

Armand invites Lucien to lunch the next day, an equally awkward encounter. Armand is torn between his sympathy of his friend and his reluctance to be reminded of his past life:

“His bashfulness and over-familiarity would keep on reminding me of the man I had once been.”

Lucien hardly speaks and, when he does, he offends Jeanne, the woman who has made Armand’s comfortable life possible, pointing out a table is not particularly tall. Simple actions like taking a cup of coffee from his host are difficult for him, but, when lunch is over, Armand finds he cannot get him to leave:

“Suddenly, before I had time to stop him, he went back into the drawing-room.”

Though the manners of the time may be different, Bove perfectly captures the difficulties of renewing a friendship from such unequal positions and the mixed feelings it creates in both characters. Armand’s refusal to give up, visiting Lucien at his room the next day, is partly a desire to do the right thing, but also an inability to entirely let his previous life go. Bove’s own life was one with moments of wealth and others of poverty, and Armand is not so much drawn to poverty as fatalistically assuming he will one day return to that state.

This, we can assume, plays some part in his pursuit of Marguerite, Lucien’s sister, who appears when he is visiting his old friend. He feels pity for her, but there is also an essential loneliness in Armand that is evident in his repeated contacts with Lucien. He walks Marguerite home and the scene where they part echoes that of Armand and Lucien’s first parting but with Armand the one reluctant to let go:

“She drew back with her arm stretched out so that I still had her hand. I squeezed it, making an effort to hold it like that, as in a game.”

Yet there is nothing in Armand’s relationship with Jeanne to suggest he is unhappy. Bove describes a number of tender moments between them. Armand is also appreciative of his lifestyle with Jeanne:

“I had lived in one room so long it gave me great pleasure to walk from one room to another.”

That he should risk this for a young girl he has just met seem self-destructive, perhaps partly arising from a belief that his luck is bound to change at some point anyway, a belief Bove builds into the narrative from the opening pages:

“On the horizon yesterday’s clouds were crowded together as if, under other skies, other clouds were preventing them from passing.”

The past is ever-present for Armand even as he believes he has forgotten it.

Armand is simply constructed around a few encounters between the title character and a handful of others: Lucien, Jeanne, Marguerite. Only occasionally are three characters together. These conversations (and silences) described in pain-staking detail and nuance are where Bove’s genius lies. Out of these small moments his characters’ lives change.

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4 Responses to “Armand”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Love the sound of this Grant – and I’d not heard of the author which seems shocking, considering the praise he garnered!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I do recall hearing about this author before, probably when NYRB reissued one of his books – a collection of short stories, I believe, which you may well have read. This does sound very good, and I like the idea of Bove focusing on small moments in his characters’ lives. These seemingly insignificant occurrences / details can be so revealing…

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