Posts Tagged ‘henri duchemin and his shadows’

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.