Bibliophilia Obscura: Emmanuel Bove and Misery Seeking Company
Admired by Rainer Maria Rilke, loved by Peter Handke, John Ashberry, and Wim Wenders, and lionized by lights in the French demimonde from Camus to Colette, Max Jacob and Phillipe Soupault, Emmanuel Bove dies of malarial fever at 59, on the Avenue de Ternes, the day before the first Fête Nationale since the liberation of Paris, July 13th, 1945. From 1898 to 1945 he lived till 47 years, a no less depressing number than his street address, and one which must suit well a writer of whom Jean-Luc Bitton has said: “One has the impression that Bove was trying to become forgotten the way others try to be known”. If you get the chance to read his novels, you may as well shake your own hand for your pluck. Beyond a few library backlogs and the backs ends of a dusty second-hand store, the only thing left of his in English are remaindered copies in the few houses which published him. Carcanet, Marlboro Press did him in the late 1970’s, and a stray run by Paladin in 1987 and 1998 put his books eventually to a stop in the anglosphere. Out of print as far as the last publicity update goes, and a mangy 404 page on the publisher’s sites. Bove’s books in hard copy are about as well-friended as the characters his pages offer. What’s left of his bound copies you can imagine, in a pile of unread editions, saying something like the crotchety and all-too-honest narrator of Winter’s Journal, Louis Grandville:
"I asked myself whether a life devoid of any affection, of any goal, a life one fills with a thousand trifles intended to relieve its monotony, populated with human beings one seeks out in order not to be alone and whom one flees to avoid being bored by them, whether such a life isn't ridiculous, whether anything whatsoever wouldn't be preferable. "
Bove’s characters are all inveterate loners. They spend their time on the page in ever more inventive ways to undermine their own happinesses. Their disfigurement in war seems to slip out of their bodies and prickle in their lives. The title L'Étranger for both the author and his little voices is pretty pat. A funny thing that Albert Camus pushed to have him published after the war, in concert with Edmond Charlot, the same man who shot Mersault and Camus to fame in 1942. Yet Bove had published his major works Mes Amis (My Friends) and Armand in 1924 and 1927 respectively. At the age of 24 he modestly announced he’d invented a new genre, in his words ‘the novel of impoverished solitude’. With the help of Collette he published it. And yet the leap from the pathetic and lonely Victor Baton, to the lone and apathetic violence of Monsieur Mersault is a small one, barely 22 years. That’s the wonder of Emmanuel Bove, he’s the silent figure who refused to be known, the palimpsest for one of 20th century fiction’s biggest personalities, and the inevitable tides of trend he must have wanted to avoid. All the same, anyone who’s felt the strange isolation of a return home, from the front, from expatriation, or the bitter isolation of a major move to a foreign city, all of us who’ve felt a degree of loneliness can feel Bove and his losers. Bove can even out Molloy Molloy. And with what precision. A scene from Mes Amis puts the statement into clarity with a bit of pain:
“I had no intention of dying, but I have often wanted to arouse pity. As soon as a passer-by approached I hid my face in my hands and sniffled like someone who has been crying. People turned away as they went past me. Last week I came within a hair’s breadth of throwing myself into the water to make it appear I was in earnest. I was gazing at the river, thinking of the Gaulish coins there must be on the bottom… […] There facing me was a man in a sailor hat, with the fag-end of a cigarette protruding from his moustache and an identity disc rusting on his wrist. […] ‘I know you want to die,’ he said. I did not reply: silence made me interesting. ‘I know I’m right’. I opened my eyes as wide as I possibly could, to make them water. ‘Yes, I know.’ Since my eyes would not water, I closed them. There was a silence, then I murmured: ‘That’s right, I want to die.’ […] The stranger approached and spoke into my ear: ‘I want to die too.’ At first I thought he was joking: but, as his hands were trembling, I was suddenly afraid he might mean it and that he might invite me to die with him. ‘Yes, I want to die,’ he repeated. ‘Oh, come on!’ ‘I want to die.’ ‘You must hope in the future’. I like the words ‘hope’ and ‘future’ in the silence of my head, but as soon as I speak them it seems to me they loose their meaning. […] ‘It’s easier to die when there are two of you’ commented my companion. There was no doubt this bargeman had decided to drown himself. He thought I would follow him. I wanted him to go on thinking that. It is not pleasant when people suspect you of being afraid of death.”
It’s no surprise then that Samuel Beckett bumped him. “Emmanuel Bove; more than anything else”, writes Beckett, “he has an instinct for the essential detail”. It is equally the quality of writing here in Mes Amis, as it is in Armand which draws the lapidary praise from Nobel weights and literary milestones alike. Across the Rhone and Rhine and again Bove’s detail and precision draw in the oeuvre’s of Wim Wenders and Peter Handke in Austria, the latter of which becomes his first translator into Österreichisches. On into the 20th century you can see books bearing Bove’s elusive stamp, the eye of the flâneur and the stranger’s interpretive distance which begins to look in and transfigure its surroundings. No wonder that Camus and his fiction hangs somewhere in the orbit, and likewise do the praise of Phillipe Soupault and his midnight walks around Paris with William Carlos Williams show the influence of Bove. A strange and no doubt corollary instance that within four years Soupault’s novel Last Nights of Paris (1928) joins the trinity of what will come to be regarded as the founding novels of the French surrealist group, with Breton’s Nadja (1928) and Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926), all having the mark of Bove’s solitary wanderer. While co-occurrence and cause can be too easily confused, the likelihood that in the works of the French avant-garde Bove is situated, somewhere in the hedges of allusion and suggestion, is a chance too close to pass. Those influenced by Gallic writing would be hard to overlook in turn. Somewhere in the vagrant’s walk in Roberto Bolaño’s European books there’s Bove, in Monsieur Pain/La Senda De Los Elefantes (1999) and in Amberes (2002); most of his work, if you have the nose for it. Somewhere in the next arrondissement stands the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Bardamu’s tramps in Voyage about de la Nuit (1932), the choler of the doctor from Mort à credit (1936). Céline’s first translator Henry Miller has enough in debt to both writers. Young blood too, like Jean-Pierre Martinet cop some jib, the live-little, suffer-little half existence of Adolphe Marlaud in The High Life (1979) show as much (The irony in placement of this brand of cigarette in Mes Amis and the newer title, is a link close enough). J.M.G. Le Clézio’s debut Le Procès-Verbal (2008) shows enough here too. The rest from there is a little bit of joining-the-dots. At times the course of Bove’s literary entropy recalls the muse of Armand on children playing, tellingly tired and retiring:
"A straight mounting street in front of me. I like to find myself on a height in front of a large space. Sometimes I need to see as far as my eyes permit, to prove how far the air that I breath extends itself. My pains seem less important then. Little by little they are mixed with those of all the people around me. I am no longer the only one suffering. The thought that in one of those houses spreading as far as my eyes can see would live a man who might be just like me gives me comfort. The world seems less far away then, its joys and pains deeper and more continuous. I walked up the street. Children were playing ball, the small ones on top, the big ones at the bottom, so that their luck would be equal."
While the temptation is strong to make from an author’s life a hopeful farrago of coincidence and intersecting mirrors into fiction, the result is often more like spilling beer in the pool. Still, to make a game out of building something like a mock homunculus of an ideal Bove might help in understanding how the total product of his prose could be a man like himself. How do all the sentences of an oeuvre collapse into the writer, past the page’s voice and its printed frieze? Besides a vague kind of space in chiaroscuro, is there nothing where the author sits, past the margins of the book? Emmanuel Bobovnikoff (fils), was a captivating guy regardless, and this clinches in his personality, whatever our relationship to the dubiousness of theory. The author’s early life was equally murky. Bove’s father, similarly Emmanuel Bobovnikoff (père), a Ukrainian Jew became the husband of Luxemburg-born Henriette Michels, a Paris housemaid, perhaps a little after, and at some point in the day, Bove was born on April 20th, 1898. A simple enough story, though beyond the barest facts is nada. A small enough and fitting scene; one which says enough. What’s little there balloons in history and dates. Example: if you turn around the 98, the number 1889 appears. There you see the birth date of Adolf Hitler on April 20th. A figure, something like the ghost of Bove’s quiet imprisonment of later years, and the one who Bove outlives by 44 days by his death on the 13th of July, 1945. The author’s childhood prefigures part of his adult life.Léon Bobovnikoff recalls his brother:
“… in a strange bed. Even in January there were flees. Many time Henriette found herself … in the street … with all her pitiful furniture in the staircase and not knowing where to go or who to ask for help.”
For a brief time before his Father’s death in 1916, Bove is 17 years old, living in the house of Emily Overweg, an heiress whom the elder Emmanuel eloped, and later left his second son. For a while he lives with wealth. Bobovnikoff senior succumbs to consumption on the last funds of his mistresses trust. In short time Bove is thrown to a back-way hotel at rue Saint-Jacques via the street. With independence he takes odd jobs: the Renault factory, a tram driver, concierge. At some point he spends a month in Santé prison due to his foreign name. In 1918 Bove is conscripted, and by a hair’s measure escapes mobilization due to armistice in November. He marries a teaching graduate and shifts to Austria. Versailles and the stringent reparations on the German speakers allow Bove to stretch his savings and begin to write with intent. Austria is starved and depressed, yet his first two major novels are written in its borders. 1924 heralds the publishing of Mes Amis and a burst into brilliance in central Europe. Reviewers faun, so do the titans of literature.
“All the pain”, writes one contributor, “of our life … that we do not always recognize or that we try to ignore, but which always ends by triumphing over us, is contained in this magnificent book”. “Look here, this is somebody!” Bove hides behind his work and denies interviews and meetings. He refuses commission for an autobiography, preferring modesty and silence: “… for a thousand reasons, of which the first one is shyness that keeps me from telling stories about myself, which, by the way, often would be untrue.”
His fame is brief, and results in divorce, remarriage in a significant Jewish family, and in 1928 he receives the Figuière prize. He maintains three houses and two families on royalties, and the prize is piddling, despite the exposure concurrent with one of its stature. The Wall Street crash in 1929 leads him back to journalism, and the quality of life in which his writing lives. Fascism begins to bloom, the diffidence of peace-time turns for Bove into political refusal – a quietism which takes him from Lyon, to Vichy, and ends in North Africa in 1942. In Algiers he hides himself in a rented flat, now in the grip of his penultimate bout of malaria. He plays chess with Saint-Exupéry, and renews friendship with Gide and Soupault. At his 20th page of the day, Bove leaves home wanders alone round Algiers. A chance meeting with Jean Gaulmier, at the time head of Radio France Algiers, recalls Bove in his increasing drive to nothing, a transparency he can’t yet manage to achieve:
“- "What are you doing here?" I asked him. - "I'm waiting, I'm waiting ... I don't know what I'm waiting for. But I'm waiting all right, perhaps to go back home, I don't know." I could see from his expression that he was profoundly sad: "If you'd like to, you could come and talk on the radio, I could set you up with a talkshow." - "It's no use", he answered. "Thank you. Anyway, you know I cannot talk in public ..." Now I definitely recognized the author of La Coalition. - "I am a friend, you know. I have lived in your universe for fifteen years and I like it very much." - "What a strange idea" he answered. "What a strange idea ..." This is all I got for an answer from Bove. I don't know what strange idea he was talking about, but there was this unforgettable smile in a sickly face. One could feel that this man was at the end of his tether. Bove is part of those rare writers, very rare, who have created a world, a universe of their own and when one makes the effort of entering this universe, one is rewarded. This universe is a valuable one, because it is the universe of sincerity.”
Bove and his wife pawn the remainder of her jewelry, and in October 1944 return to Paris. He makes his last attempts to write after five years of refusal. Three more books are published, and the last of his illness sets about. A diary entry from the days before his death describes his state like a little convex glass, his life and his presence before people and the world, in the most natural of realizations, becomes the tenor of his body: “My little rickety being”, writes Bove, “makes me think of the cherries that are left on the plate”. Untypical, and unlike many Jewish writers, of ethnicity, or practice, Bove did not kill himself. Perhaps he ended in the way which seemed to be most quiet. Less than four brief obituaries mentioned the event, and for over 30 years Bove’s work languishes. Articles, Dictionaries of Biography and Literature, Essays pass over him in silence, or maybe not at all. His end, in a maudlin and yet in a sense which fits him too comfortably is the image of his birth and early years. Victor Baton and the friendless specters of his early fiction come to fill the space of Bove himself, where there is emptiness and neither his words or the friends by whom sometimes he was remembered. Though mostly the books stayed readerless and out of print. For a time in Europe in the 1980’s it was not the case, reissues and translations happening in German, Italian, and English. Ten or twenty years later much of his obscurity sets in again, despite the work and strong endorsements. Bove is his fiction and his fiction is him in pure material, each barely exist. And though the pointlessness is much the same as looking for a Bobovnikoff in the fictions of Bove, it floats; in it there’s the chance to find reflected dully, an image of the semivisibility of a silent man in history. But to suggest that Bove recalled no precedents would give the wrong impression. His smallness in and out of Literature shows up here and there in the strangest of places. Knut Hamsun’s Hunger/Sult (1890), gives a good enough bellwether for the urban desperate, as do Raskolnikovs and under-men in Dostoyevski’s fiction, and eerily too in The Overcoat and Nose, the perennial apparatchik of Gogol, in all his sadness and big-city downtroddenness. Most locally resembling and accountable however, is Rousseau’s Solitary Wanderer of 1782. Less in outlook than in disposition, does Rousseau prefigure the whole, where thought looks out at the world the tenderness in Bove shies from it, yet basically the same obtains, the emblem of one phenomenally exiled mind, throwing its desire along the city from its gaze. If you’re for extreme examples, Benito Pérez Galdós’ ascetics in Nazarín (1895) and Miau (1888) should do, and to top it off, the perambulating mind of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and One-Way Street. From the flâneurie of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, to Robert Walser’s Spatziganger in his newly collected in English schrifte, the bloke by himself having a gander, but more often feeling god-awful serves to give you more than a cornucopia of examples for why Emmanuel Bove is worth reading and worth feeling for. The parting words of Louis Baton in Mes Amis, a novel more of strangers made uncomfortable by desperation than of friends, give you neatly the modest kernel of what Bove might be about:
“My eyes, which are wide open, can see nothing, not even the window. I think about death and the sky, for whenever I think about death, I think about the stars too. I feel very small beside the infinite and quickly abandon these thoughts. My warm body, which is alive, reassures me. I touch my skin lovingly. I listen to my heart, but I take good care not to lay my hand on my chest for there is nothing which frightens me so much as that regular beat which I do not control and which could so easily stop. I move my joints and breathe more freely when I feel that they do not hurt. Solitude, what a sad and beautiful thing it is! How beautiful when we choose it! How sad when it is forced upon us year after year! Some strong men are not lonely when they are alone, but I, who am weak, am lonely when I have no friends.”
One image too, can show his art more than any other, the kind of thing you could assume Beckett was thinking about when he gave the shout-out, and what Bove’s few reviewers incessantly come back to:
“Rain drops were falling on the ground, never one on the other.”
Eventually all there is to do is read him. And at this point your best bet is to try a few numbers in your area (For Perth readers, Serendipity Books in Subaico once had a copy of Mes Amis in English and may still). Otherwise, a few searches in second-hand listings in the way of ABE Books, Fishpond, and Ebay could shoot you in the right direction. All else failing, you can beg his publishers through email, or more likely, their mailing address. If you read French or any other European language, you may be more in luck. At some point we’re all hoping for the benign owner of a copy to scan and upload a PDF onto Bookoz or 4shared – if they can keep their domains up. National Library and the Reid may have something promising too. Lost books are hard to find by definition, though if anything, the pleasure had from reading one is new. I imagine there’s comparison to the taste of the last few passenger pigeons, or the egg of a great auk, or dodo beak. Fortunately, books are easy to find.