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An NYRB Classics Original
Emmanuel Bove was one of the most original writers to come out of twentieth-century France and a popular success in his day. Discovered by Colette, who arranged for the publication of his first novel, My Friends, Bove enjoyed a busy literary career, until the German occupation silenced him. During his lifetime, his novels and stories were admired by Rilke, the surrealists, Camus, and Beckett, who said of him that “more than anyone else he has an instinct for the essential detail.”
Henry Duchemin and His Shadows is the ideal introduction to Bove’s world, with its cast of stubborn isolatoes who call to mind Melville’s Bartleby, Walser’s “little men,” and Rhys’s lost women. Henri Duchemin, the protagonist of the collection’s first story, “Night Crime,” is ambivalent, afraid of appearing ridiculous, desperate for money: in other words, the perfect prey. Criminals, beautiful women, and profiteers threaten the sad young men of Bove’s stories, but worse yet are the interior voices and paranoia that propel them to their fates. The poet of the flophouse and the dive, the park bench and the pigeon’s crumb, Bove is also a deeply empathetic writer for whom no defeat is so great as to silence desire.
The prolific and melancholic Bove (My Friends) wrote all manner of stories, fragments, and novellas before WWII, when he was forced into Algerian exile, from the off-the-cuff confessional to the darkly weird, but this collection features just a taste of these. The title story covers more in its short duration than most novels: urged by his friends to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, Monsieur Duchemin is inexplicably befriended by a nameless man who enlists him in murdering a prominent banker with a hammer, after which Duchemin undertakes a bizarre quest for redemption. Subsequent stories such as "Another Friend," concerning a brief, passionate friendship between a pauper and a rich man, and "Night Visit," in which a despondent young groom begs a friend to verify his wife's disloyalty, are a vivifying crash course in Bove's obsessions: suicide, friendship, adultery, and the sudden reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, the remaining stories don't do much to expand on these, and dated pieces of histrionic misogyny such as "Is It a Lie?" haven't aged well. A longer collection or a full novel might have done more for literary Francophiles and casual readers alike; but that's not to say this book isn't abound with mind-bendingly odd sentences that only Bove could write, such as, "She was so beautiful that he soon confused her in his mind with the woman he had dreamed of marrying his whole life," and, "The stranger was almost a father to me."