Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Emmanuel Bove's sad, ironic My Friends - I imitated him, limping for no reason.

The title of Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924) is ironic.  Our narrator, poor Victor Baton has no friends.  In each of the short sections of Emmanuel Bove’s episodic novel, Baton almost makes a friend, almost.  The failures are often but not always his fault.  Some of the failures are deliberate self-sabotage.

Baton has no family, and no past, except for his injured hand, a war injury that brings him a small disability pension.  Is he suffering from some kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other mental illness?  Or is he taking, although he would not call it that, a philosophical stance?  A proto-existentialist rejection of the world, to the extent that rejection is possible.  Bove’s novel is a strong, pure expression of a kind of alienation that will soon appear in a thousand French books.

The prose is simple and material, full of ordinary details and actions.  It is perfect for the French language learner.  If you are one of those, you can read the first edition digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the one I read and the source of my page numbers.  Several post-war French writers pushed back against the traditional elegance and even correctness of literary French.  Mes Amis is one of those books.  Much of it is even written in the present tense.  It is the oldest French novel I have come across written in the present tense.

Not that it stays in the present.  The EuropeNow website features a couple of pages of Janet Louth’s 1986 English translation, reissued in 2019.  See the plain language, and the short sentences and paragraphs.  Baton has noticed an attractive woman noticing him.  He fantasizes that she (or someone) becomes his girlfriend, that they go on dates:

I should pay without looking at the meter. I should leave the door open.

Passers-by would watch us. I should pretend not to see them.

Look at all of those conditional tenses.  You, the French student, still have to know your tenses, sorry, what can you do.

Note the ordinariness, the generic quality, of Baton’s fantasy.  Please also note, hidden in the middle the sudden appearance of metaphorical language:

The solo violinist would sway backwards and forwards as if on a spring-board, balancing his body. Locks of hair would flop over his eyes, as if he had just come out of a bath.

This is my favorite part of the novel, the surprising eruption of original and interesting metaphorical language amidst the usual clear, plain prose.  Bove gives his characters lot of little psychological insights, too.  There is the big psychological question – why does he drive everyone away – but also good small ones like this (Billard is a potential friend):

Billard rose slowly, balancing with his arms, limping a little, without doubt because he had remained immobile.  I imitated him, limping for no reason.  (“Henri Billard I,” 47, tr. me)

What is our narrator looking for, really?  He can’t say.

As a little bonus, the Paris of the novel, functionally described is highly recognizable.  In the “Neveu, the Sailor” episode, for example, Baton and a depressed sailor come to the verge of killing themselves by jumping in the Seine.  Various clues put them under the Pont d’Austerlitz, on the Left Bank.  Now the bike path goes right by the spot (“there was a heap of peaked sand, some tools of the city of Paris, a gatehouse, and a chained wheelbarrow” (106) – all still there).  Someone should put up a plaque.


  1. What is it about the French and alienation!
    Best wishes from the Gulf coast:

  2. The French think they invented alienation. Maybe they did.

  3. Just last weekend I held a copy of the NYRB edition of this book in my hand. I bought something else instead, but I think I'll go back to the shop for My Friends. It looks pretty good. Thanks for the link to the translation.

    "The prose is simple and material, full of ordinary details and actions. It is perfect for the French language learner." Last year when I read Heinrich Böll's Irisches Tagebuch, I thought I'd found the German-language equivalent of this, but Böll's prose is full of sly metaphor and figures of speech. It was a harder than I'd imagined it would be, so now I feel cheated. Though I'm also now a better reader of German. But still. The Böll is hi-sterical, by the way, a sideways pushback against normal "travel writing." I should've said all this in a comment to the Waugh post.

  4. A sensible page of actual prose, why is this so rare as a promotional device?

    I had not heard of the Böll book. It seems to be enormously important, in its narrow way. Defined the image of Ireland for Germans for decades. Amazing.

    The Bove novel, the prose is genuinely easy. You'll read it at 1.5x times the usual speed. 2x. 3x. 10x, how would I know how you read.

  5. I remember now one of the reasons I was so impressed with this was because I misread the blurb and thought Bove was 12 when he wrote the book.

    Armand is meant to be a good book as well, but less so the rest of his work. I've read Night Departure which is a sort of second world war prison escape thriller, which was ok but nothing more.

  6. It was the age of the novel prodigy. I don't know when he wrote his novels, but Radiguet was only 20 when he died. Heck, Daisy Ashford was 9 when she wrote her masterpiece.

    Armand sounds good. I may have to wait three years to read it, when it enters the U.S. public domain and I can get a French text, maybe.

  7. new postplace: mudpuddlesoup2.blogspot.com

  8. You're now reviewing in the form of prose poems. Interesting!

  9. Loved this book !
    A very moving and funny novel about the sufferings of human loneliness. I think Victor is also very attached and proud of his freedom (he doesn't have to work and keeps wandering around) and this is why people unconsciously envy and detest him.
    I've written a review on this lovely novel a while ago now on my blog, in French : https://litteratureencastalie.blogspot.com/2017/04/mes-amis-emmanuel-bove.html

  10. Thanks for the link. I will have to roam around your blog. How interesting.

    I certainly spent more time thinking about how Baton unconsciously envied and detested everyone else.