Posts Tagged ‘Emmanuel Bove’


June 20, 2021

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.

Henri Duchemin and His Shadows

October 3, 2018

Moving from one neglected French writer (Violette Leduc) to another, Emmanuel Bove was born in 1898, publishing throughout the twenties and thirties. His first novel under his own name was My Friends in 1924, though he had previously been writing popular fiction using a pseudonym. He was unable to publish during the Occupation, and wrote his final novels after escaping to Algiers, only to die in 1945. A number of his novels have been translated into English but most are out of print; Henri Duchemin and His Shadows is a translation by Alyson Waters of a collection originally published in 1939, La Dernière Nuit.

The title of Bove’s first novel (to be reprinted by New York Review of Books Classics next March) seems indicative as many of the stories here also focus on friendship. In ‘Night Crime’, Henri Duchemin is poor and alone. His desire to end his loneliness is obvious from the opening pages where he offers to open his heart to a stranger in a café:

“He was so happy to be speaking that he seemed younger. He was sure he would be liked and this gave him confidence.”

Unfortunately the woman he addresses is unsympathetic: “Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re so unhappy, just kill yourself.” His need for companionship unrequited, he moves to an even more insalubrious bar, finding himself sitting by a sleeping man who, on waking, asks him:

“Do you want to be my friend? Like you, I wouldn’t mind having a lot of money.”

The stranger’s plan involves Duchemin going into the house of a wealthy banker, and killing him:

“You’ll enter his bedroom, the moon will light your way. You’ll just need to strike, and you’ll be rich.”

Although he does not want to commit the murder, he finds himself drawn into the plot. They go to the house and the stranger sends him into the banker’s bedroom with a hammer, but when he returns with the man’s wallet, his companion is gone. Even now his longing is for friendship, using his new-found wealth in a bar, throwing money to his “true friends”, only a moment later beginning to “sense that they did not like him…”

“The ugliness of life appeared to him. Until then, as long as they had been listening to him, he had been in a dream.”

Duchemin’s loneliness, rather than his poverty, seems to be at the root of his crime.

Loneliness is also at the heart of ‘Another Friend’ which also begins with the narrator meeting a stranger and striking up a friendship while feeding ducks in the park:

“For the first time in my life I was not embarrassed to meet someone. I was in such a perfect position to be liked that I could speak to anyone without being afraid.”

The stranger invites the narrator for lunch, declaring, “You have a friend in me. Every time I am able to make someone’s life a little less painful, I do so.” As the story goes on to demonstrate, however, friendship brings with it not only joy, but disappointment.

We see this, too, in ‘Night Visit’ which examines a more established friendship, the narrator interrupted at home one night by an old war comrade, Paul:

“Well, my friend, in the name of this unblemished friendship I am asking you to listen to me.”

The story examines the limits of friendship, the narrator, unable to resolve Paul’s problems, proposing to return to his home:

“Although my friendship for him was strong right then, it seemed ridiculous to spend a night consoling him.”

Friendship, it seems, is not to be relied on; and neither, if the stories in the second half of the book are anything to go by, is love. In ‘What I Saw’ the narrator is convinced he sees his girlfriend in a taxi kissing another man and is powerless before her denials. In ‘Is It a Lie?’ the wife stays out all night and her husband must decide whether to believe her story or not. In ‘The Story of a Madman’ the narrator tells all his loved ones that he does not wish to see them again. ‘The Child’s Return’ works in reverse: a narrator separated from his family is traveling to visit them, but the reunion is not as straight-forward as he had hoped.

Bove’s world is one in which no-one’s affection is reliable, and characters must either face up to this – a realisation which is often associated with suicide – or pretend to believe otherwise:

“…rather than losing everything, it would be better to suffer in silence in order to have the joy of living with the woman he loved and who had enough respect and fondness for him to go to the trouble of lying.”

Despite this cynicism, he evokes a sympathy for his characters which borders on affection. They are well worth accompanying on their sad journeys.