My Friends by Emmanuel Bove (1923)
Emmanuel Bove’s first novel, My Friends, relates the story of Victor Baton, a wounded war veteran trying to reestablish his prewar lifestyle but avoid work. Living in a run-down boardinghouse, Baton spends his days searching working-class Paris for the modest comforts of warmth, cheap meals, and friendship, but he finds little. And despite his situation, Baton remains vain and unsympathetic, a Bovian antihero to the fullest. Bove himself called My Friends, published in France in 1923, a “novel of impoverished solitude.”
One highlight of the book is Baton’s encounter with Neveu, a friendless, depressed man who is collecting stones along the Seine. When Baton approaches to ask why Neveu is collecting stones, Neveu tells him that he is about to drown himself, and he needs ballast to drag him to the bottom of the river. Baton decides to help Neveu collect stones, and then he decides to throw himself into the river as well. By the time they’ve collected enough stones to do the job, Neveu and Baton have become friends, and they decide to go to a cafe instead of killing themselves; but Neveu takes advantage of Baton’s generosity, spends all of his money on wine and then disappears into a brothel with Baton’s last penny. Baton never sees him again. It is difficult to imagine from this description that the scene is funny, but it is.
This 50-year-old first novel is as buoyant as fresh bread. It is also sad, funny and engagingly written in short, sober sentences which seem to flow with the ease of everyday talk. Beneath this appearance, to be sure, lies the art which conceals art, for Emmanuel Bove’s style is thriftily pared down and his choice of detail cleverly persuasive. The surprise is not in learning that his books appealed in their time to Colette, Rainer Maria Rilke and Samuel Beckett, but rather that they should have sunk since then into near oblivion. read more