The Essential Detail



Emmanuel Bove’s fiction captures “a well-trodden and forever alienating Paris.”

Emmanuel Bove.

Emmanuel Bove was a master of hyperobjectivity. His characters, drawn from all classes, are often paralyzed by a failure of will, poisoned by envy, cursed with bad luck or betrayal. With relentless clarity, Bove imparts a deeply felt and lasting impression of the lives of these solitary and emotionally shattered young men whose fortunes and futures hinge on a stroke of luck, an immoral act, an accident. The author’s own youth was a harsh one, characterized by instability and discord; and yet, like the lives of his characters, it was occasionally graced by wealth and privilege. Born in Paris, in 1898, Bove was the son of a Belgian-born housemaid, Henriette Michels, and an immigrant Ukrainian Jew, Emmanuel Bobovnikoff. Bove’s father was a largely absent womanizer whose financial contributions to the family were infrequent at best. Bove and his brother, Léon, lived in abject poverty with their mother, who moved frequently within the slums of Paris to find work, always shadowed by bill collectors. However, Bove’s childhood took a decisive turn when his father’s affair with Emily Overweg, a wealthy painter and the daughter of the British consul in Shanghai, led to an unlikely marriage. Sent to live with his father and stepmother, Bove experienced the twilight of Belle-Epoque opulence, while Léon, who would become a doctor, remained with his mother in an unforgiving cycle of grinding poverty. And like the fleeting encounters with fortune that Bove employed in his fiction, this unexpected stretch of good luck would not last.

At the age of eight Bove decided to become a writer, and at fourteen, with the financial backing of his stepmother, he was sent to a boarding school in England. The outbreak of World War I soon disrupted his studies and forced him to return to France. His father succumbed to tuberculosis and his stepmother, whose fortunes had all but evaporated as a result of the war, could offer little assistance. While thousands of young men were dying in the trenches of Somme, Arras, and Verdun, Bove was living in a transient hotel—a familiar setting for nearly all of his novels—and working menial jobs (busboy, waiter, Renault factory worker, and tram operator) while attempting to write. Before he could be called up, the armistice was declared—one wonders if he missed the opportunity to distinguish himself on the battlefield and pursue an officer’s career. Instead, he spent a month in jail on account of a vagrancy charge aggravated by an anti-Semitic gendarme’s inability to pronounce his last name. Thus Bobovnikoff became Bove, and one of the last century’s finest authors was agonizingly birthed from a seemingly endless series of unfortunate circumstances.

Barely in his twenties, Bove married Suzanne Vallois, a young teacher, and they migrated to a suburb of Vienna, where, under the name of Jean Vallois, he attempted to make money writing pulp fiction. Living in postwar Austria might have appeared to be an affordable alternative to France, but rising inflation and economic stagnation quickly devoured what little savings they had managed to relocate with. Vienna did provide Bove with enough distance to approach his craft, yet it offered no financial support for an aspiring writer, his wife, and their daughter. When the money ran out, they were forced to return to Paris. And then, with the help of Colette, who was taken by the wisp of a manuscript this deeply reserved unknown young writer pressed upon her, Bove was able to publish Mes amis (My Friends) under his own name. A thin yet dynamic book that borrowed heavily from the transient hotel years of his late teens, Mes amis remains Bove’s best-known novel. In it we meet Victor Baton—profoundly lonely, old for his relatively young age, and penniless—and witness him casting about among the destitute in a grim, postwar Paris. Victor is forever idle, emotionally paralyzed, unemployable, and never short on real and imagined slights.

When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hair covers my forehead. I spread my fingers and push it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again.

The thin novel Armand followed Mes amis and was very well received. In Armand, Bove further expands on the destructive roles of alienation, abject poverty, and disenfranchisement while disseminating a doomed relationship.

The language Bove employed in these early works, and throughout his entire career, is precise and elegant. The urgency in his deceptively simple, pitch-perfect tone lends itself to an immediate intimacy. The precision in his writing evokes landscapes and interiors, emotional and otherwise, that read like high-resolution photographs. And while his craft was forever attuned to the complete story—exploring the motives and complexities that lead his characters to do what they must—he wrote in a simple, everyday language. Bove’s work is a fine distillation of lived experience expressed with seemingly effortless artistry.

Throughout his brief yet productive career, Bove captured the experience of a lost generation of war veterans. He recorded the odious aftereffects of the November 1918 armistice with its widespread unemployment and the growing disaffected and largely reactionary working class that was teetering on the brink of revolution. Bove portrayed the young widows burdened with illegitimate sons who grow up into pathetic needy men wrecking havoc on anyone unwise enough to show them a modicum of compassion. He captured bourgeois families grasping at the titles dangling from rapidly diminishing fortunes, and a well-trodden and forever alienating Paris.

At the time of Bove’s debut, Colette, André Gide, Philippe Soupault, Max Jacob, and Rainer Maria Rilke all adored his writing. Samuel Beckett was another early admirer who claimed, “Emmanuel Bove, more than anyone else … has an instinct for the essential detail.” Considering how obscure his work became after his death, it is hard to imagine Bove as a literary star, yet he was a successful and productive author in the 1920s and thirties. While he avoided the spotlight that came with fame, his writing had a profound influence on many authors during his lifetime, and later on those writing after World War II. Bove informed Albert Camus’s humanistic preoccupations; Claude Simon’s elegant details and the obsessive autobiographical accounting that drive his novels; Nathalie Sarraute’s delicate and intimate precision; and the bleak humor and disparaging, otherworldly hopelessness of Beckett’s contributions to the theater of the absurd.

Henri_Duchemin_1024x1024Bove’s German translator, the Austrian novelist Peter Handke, made known Bove’s reputation beyond France at a time when his novels were forgotten. The poet and translator John Ashbery has also been a passionate advocate. After more than fifty years of obscurity following his untimely death in the summer of 1945, Bove’s fiction has resurfaced in earnest and nurtured a younger generation of French novelists. His influence among writers in English has also begun to blossom—thanks in no small part to stellar translations by Dominic di Bernardi (A Singular Man, Quicksand), Nathalie Favre-Gilly (The Stepson, A Winter’s Journal), Janet Louth (My Friends, Armand, A Man Who Knows), and now Alyson Waters, who has added another outstanding contribution to Bove’s work in English. Henri Duchemin and His Shadows collects many of his short stories and the novella Night Crime in one volume for the first time in English. This collection was originally published by Gallimard in 1939—just months before the outbreak of World War II.

Night Crime gloriously illustrates Bove’s ability to comfortably nest in the realms of the macabre with a delicate Kawabata-meets-Poe touch. In the richly nuanced and evocative dreamscape of the novella, we are introduced to the lonely and destitute Henri Duchemin on what can only be described as a singularly miserable Christmas Eve.

Henri Duchemin dreamed of supplicants, of owning houses, of freedom. But once his imagination had calmed down, it seemed the disorder of his room had grown, in contrast as it was with his reveries.

A mirror in a bamboo frame reflected his face. He forgot everything and, talking to himself, gazed at his reflection to see what he looked like when he spoke.

The flame was becoming so weak that now it lit only the table. It flickered on its wick. Suddenly it went out.

Henri Duchemin, groping for matches, knocked over objects he did not recognize.

Weary from searching, he sat in the armchair and closed his eyes so as not to see the darkness.

The warmth from his body was slowly drying his clothes. He felt better. Soon it seemed to him that the floor was slipping away beneath his feet and that his legs were swinging in the void, like those of a child on a chair.

We follow a dreaming Henri though Paris as he contemplates suicide and befriends a criminal who convinces him that murdering a banker will guarantee him a lifetime of wealth. After the murder, Henri flees into the night with the banker’s bulging wallet tearing apart the breast pocket of his threadbare overcoat and attempts to assuage his guilt by offering handfuls of francs to the strangers he encounters. When dawn finally breaks, Henri awakens to the realization of his innocence, and the story ends with a great relief that lasts only for as long as the final paragraph allows.

It was around this time that Bove left Suzanne and their two daughters without an explanation or even a farewell. As soon as his divorce was finalized, Bove married Louise Ottensooser, a young Jewish woman from a well-to-do family. Louise reintroduced him to the high society that he first had experienced while living with his stepmother, and he found himself completely alienated by it. At the same time his novels were growing longer and more nuanced, his writing having reached its full maturation, what was to be his peak, and he was able to live comfortably enough to write without having to worry about money.

Bove won the highly coveted Prix Figuière in 1928 for what many consider his finest work, La Coalition (The Coalition), which remains criminally untranslated. For the next few years, until the Great Depression nearly wiped out the Ottensooser family fortune, he was at his most content. Throughout the 1930s, Bove produced a steady output of writing that enabled him to provide for his mother, his second wife, and his ex-wife and daughters.

A staunch antifascist, Bove was revolted by Pétain’s Vichy, and he courageously decided not to publish during the German occupation. Bove and Louise went underground and were eventually able to flee to Algiers in 1942, where he wrote his last masterpiece, Le piege (Quicksand), and the novels Depart dans la nuit (Night Departure) and Non-lieu (No Place) while living among the exiled. All three books depict the paranoia and hopelessness of those living compromised lives during the German occupation. These three books were not written from the luxury of perspective and are all the more remarkable for their artistry and focus, penned in real time. When the Germans were pushed out of France in 1944, Bove and Louise were forced to linger in North Africa until they could scrape up enough funds to return to Paris. Bove was suffering from cachexia, a body-wasting disease, when his heart failed. He died in Paris on July 13, 1945, at age forty-seven.

This essay appears as the introduction to Emmanuel Bove’s Henri Duchemin and His Shadows, reissued this month by The New York Review Books. Reprinted with permission.

Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail, coeditor of InTranslation, managing editor of Red Dust, and the author of more than a dozen plays, a novella, and the novels 6/2/95, You Are Here, and This Young Girl Passing. He lives in Brooklyn.