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(Cet article est disponible en français aussi.)

  Emmanuel Bove - Misery Seeking Company

by Jean-Luc Bitton

  ON JULY 13TH IN 1945, France is preparing the celebration of its first 14th of July of liberation, with flags and garlands swinging merrily in the streets and on the village squares. In Paris, at 59, Avenue de Ternes on this morning before the holiday - Friday the 13th - a young French writer dies, neglected by everybody, from malaria fever. Perhaps one of the most important writers of this century. His name? Emmanuel Bobovnikoff, nicknamed Bove.

Emmanuel Bove (1898-1945). One has the impression that Bove was trying to become forgotten the way others try to become known.


A few laconic articles in the press the following week announce this disappearence with the lapidary title: "Emmanuel Bove is dead". On the 21st of July his longtime friend Pierre Bost writes in Lettres Françaises: "Emmanuel Bove has just died at the age of 47, he was a born novelist (...) His first book really had the most beautiful title in the world, both for him and for all of them: Mes amis (My friends)."

Bove, the son of Emmanuel Bobovnikoff, an immigrant ukrainian jew, and Henriette Michels, a Luxemburg-born housemaid, is born in Paris on April 20th, 1898. His childhood was poor, between a fickle father and a victim mother and little Emmanuel was confronted from birth with a lack of confidence that one finds as a common denominator in all his stories. As an adult his brother Léon bears witness to this insecurity on recording his memories of misery in a notebook: "Emmanuel was sleeping in a strange bed. Even in January there were flees. The children would watch them move over the walls and crush them with their fingers. Many times Henriette found herself and her two children in the street without a penny, with all her pitiful furniture in the staircase and not knowing where to go or who to ask for help."

From "My friends", the Henri Billard chapter, part IV:

”I feared that he would ask me for something without significance, or something much too important. I love to do favours, small favours, of course, to show my benevolence.
- Lend me fifty francs.
Our eyes met. A thousand thoughts went through my mind. Obviously, it was the same with Billard. There were no longer any barriers between us. He could read my soul as easily as I could read his.
The second of hesitation, which strikes everybody in a situation like this, passed, and in a voice that I allowed to become solemn, I said:
- I will lend it to you.
I was happy, more to inspire gratefulness than to lend. The conversation could start again. Now, I was not a nuisance any more. I could stay until midnight and return tomorrow and the day after that and anytime. If he would lend me fifty francs, it would be because he had confidence in me.
The money from my pension is in my pocket. Still, I did not give Billard what he had asked for. I behaved as if I didn't think about it anymore. I felt that the longer I waited, the more amiable they would become.
Presently, I was a man of importance. With every movement I made, they glanced at me, hoping that I would take out my wallet. I hadn't had such an important position for years. Every word I uttered was received with a smile. They observed me; they feared I would forget.
You had to be a saint to be able to resist the temptation of prolonging this joy.
Oh, how I excuse the rich people!”

From "My friends", the Henri Billard chapter, part III:

”Lovers are egotistic and impolite.
Last year a young married couple lived in the milkseller's room. Every evening they were standing by the window. From the noise of their kisses, I could decide whether they were kissing on the mouth or on the skin.
To avoid listening to it, I dragged around on the streets until midnight. When I got back, I undressed in silence.
Once, by accident, I dropped a shoe.
They woke up, and the noise from their kisses started again. Furiously, I banged on the wall. Since I am not mean, a few minutes later, I regretted that I had disturbed them. Surely they were confused. I decided to offer them my excuses.
But, at nine o'clock the next morning, one could again hear roars of laughter through the wall. The two lovers were making fun of me.”

Bove's childhood takes a positive turn when Bobovnikoff the father makes the fortunate encounter of a rich English woman, the painter Emily Overweg. Soon he is sharing his life between his wife and his mistress. Emmanuel is constantly thrown between the two homes. He discovers "the other world": that of the rich. Later, the writer describes this period of his childhood in one of his most autobiographic novels with the eloquent title Le Beau-fils (The Stepson): "Although only a child, he had guessed how different his mother was from this woman who never raised her voice and who lived among books, colors and objects that seemed precious to him." As for Léon, Emmanuel's brother, he stays with their mother, in promiscuity and misery. Both boys feeling cruelly abandoned by their father, they criticized him during his whole life and when he passed away they continued harassing the then bankrupt Emily.

The trauma of this childhood, with its uprooting and its discord, is similar to the pessimistic and fatalistic literary universe of the writer. Through his literary work, Emmanuel Bove tried to exorcize this atmosphere of misfortune, envy and rancor. However, this couldn't keep the writer from developing an immense feeling of culpability regarding this unfortunate family.

Emmanuel is 17 years old when his father dies from tuberculosis. Not finding any help from his stepmother, who is herself in a difficult situation, he starts living on his own in a tacky hotel at rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. He does a lot of odd jobs: as a waiter in a café, washing the dishes in a restaurant, as a worker at the Renault factory, as a tramway driver. He even spends a month in the Santé prison, due to his miserable situation and to the foreign pronunciation of his name. This difficult life serves him as a setting for his two first novels, Mes Amis and Armand:

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. (Armand.)

In 1918 Bove, called to serve his country, narrowly escapes the war thanks to the armistice. Demobilized he marries a young teacher, Suzanne Valois. He is determined to write. The couple moves with their savings to Austria where the exchange rate is favorable so that Emmanuel can write in peace. Unfortunately, they are exposed to the hardships of a country ruined by war. Bove's daughter Nora is born there, as well as his first book.

Bove playing golf, some time around 1935.


Colette, playing the role of the good fairy of literature and of an unexpected godmother, sees to that the writer's first story with the simple but brilliant title Mes Amis is published in 1924. Shortly after the publication of the novel the equally unexpected Sacha Guitry writes a dithyrambic review in the literary magazine Candide , exclaiming: "Look here, this is somebody!" The critics are all full of praise and compare the writer to Proust and Dostoyevsky. Jean Botrot writes: "All the pain of our life, this pain 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." With this first novel the young writer of 26 years of age meets with an immediate success and becomes a myth for his fellow writers. One of his admirers, Rainer Maria Rilke, asks to be introduced to Bove during his last visit to Paris and there are numerous other signs of admiration, from Philippe Soupault, André Gide, Max Jacob and many others. It's enough to read the first lines of Mes Amis to be struck by the uniqueness and the clarity of Bove's writing:

When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are greasy: to brush them in the evening would be better, but I never have the courage. Tears have dried in the corners of my eyes. My shoulders don't hurt anymore. My straight hair is covering my forehead. I throw it back with my spread fingers but it is useless: like pages of a new book, they stand on edge and fall back before my eyes.
When I lower my head I notice that my beard has grown: twinges of pain at my throat.
My neck is warmed up, I remain lying on my back, eyes open and the covers drawn up to my chin, so that the bed doesn't get cold.
The ceiling is stained from damp: it is so close to the roof. At certain places there is air under the wallpaper. My furniture resembles such pieces you can buy from peddlers on the sidewalk. The pipe from my little iron-stove is bandaged with a cloth, like a knee. Above the window there is a blind, that doesn't work anymore, hanging on the slant.

Apart from a few journalistic articles - under the heading of Miscellaneous - Emmanuel Bove only dedicates himself to the elaboration of his work after the publication of Mes Amis and totally hides himself behind it. Modest and discrete, preferring silence to publicity, one has the impression that he is trying to become forgotten the way others try to become known. This extreme reserve makes him decline the offer from one of his editors pushing him to write his autobiography: "for a thousand reasons, of which the first one is the shyness that keeps me from telling stories about myself which, by the way, often would be untrue."

Bove with his daughter Nora, August 1924.

Ill equipped for family life as much as for social and literary life, Bove leaves his first wife Suzanne Valois and their two children in the summer of 1925, without a word. Once divorced, he remarries Louise Ottensooser, a young girl from an important jewish family which introduces him to a worldly social life where he feels out of place. Soon enough, he has to juggle with his royalties to handle the upkeep of the three homes: his own, that of his ex-wife and finally, the one of his mother and brother.

Bove now starts to write like a madman, incessantly, in an almost hypnotic state of mind. From 1927 to 1928, the writer produces eleven novels or publications of short stories! Bécon-les-Bruyères, Un soir chez Blutel, La mort de Dinah, L'amour de Pierre Neuhart, Henri Duchamin et ses ombres . The tone is set. Throughout this authentic Human Comedy, the writer always puts himself at the periphery, on the side of the humble people, of those who don't have much in life or no social success. His texts are simple and direct. The style is without embellishment: subject-verb-complement. With almost nothing Bove shows everything:

On a hot August day I was walking in the Montsouris park. Although it was midday, the sun was not in the middle of the sky. I could see it without moving my head, just by raising my eyes. The morning hours are the most beautiful of the whole day. All the too ambitious or too modest thoughts of the evening have left my spirit. The night has made me a new being. Midday is the extreme limit of happiness for me. (Another friend in Henri Duchemin et ses ombres.)

One could englobe Bove's work by the quotation of Elias Canetti, "To find phrases so simple that they will never again be your own phrases".

In 1928, Bove receives the Figuière prize, the most valued one at the time, for his book La Coalition (The Coalition). At this occasion the writer expresses, in one of his rare confidences to the journalists, the conviction from which the brilliance of his writing springs: that above all, literature should not be literary: "If one tries to enter literature, one must not have a literary attitude. It is through the force of life that one succeeds in doing so. Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, these famous men were not men of letters, you see. They were men who wrote. Life is not literary. It can enter literature when it is a writer of this standing who makes it enter, even if the writer did not intend to write anything literary."

In spite of this devotion, these are to be the last happy years of the writer. He undergoes the full force of the economic crisis, the publishing world suffers and the stockmarket collapse ruins his second wife. The couple in difficulty seeks refuge in the countryside in the Paris region.

"I have a tendency to be melancholic, to doubt myself," the writer observes in his diary. To subsist, Bove goes back to journalism. The rising of fascism in Europe does not leave him indifferent and he manifests his solidarity through the publication of stories and news in the main antifascist magazines. In 1939, France declares war to Germany. After the armistice, the demobilized writer moves to Lyon, then to Vichy, where he finds himself confronted with the sickening political system of marchal Pétain. In this France "between the devil and the deep blue sea", he writes the novel Le Piège (The Trap), a major statement on the ambiguities of a France both conquered and collaborating. Lucid, Gaullist from the very beginning, Bove refuses courageously to publish under the German occupation. This choice of a "literature of silence" is not often followed by other writers. Louise and Emmanuel Bove go underground. Lyon is the first stop of a long voyage which eventually takes them to North Africa.

The couple arrives in November of 1942 to Algiers, where they settle in a small appartment on the boulevard Carnot overlooking the port. Every morning the writer goes to Bouzaréah, a flourishing suburb, where he rents a room from a local, to write in peace. In spite of a declining health, aggravated by the malaria he has contracted, he writes about twenty pages per day. In Algiers, a constellation of artists, musicians, painters and writers have taken shelter. For the solitary writer this intellectual and artistic promiscuity favors the friendship with for instance the painter Albert Marquet and of Saint-Exupéry, with whom he plays chess. He also renews old acquaintances like Soupault, André Gide and Max-Pol Fouchet. A young editor, Edmond Charlot, and his literary advisor Albert Camus undertake to publish him after the war. During 1944 the war takes a decisive turn and for many, this is the sign for a return to France. As for Emmanuel Bove, he wanders around alone in Algiers. The writer and head of Radio France Algiers, Jean Gaulmier, evokes his miraculous encounter with the writer of Mes Amis:

One day, in fact it was on September 19th 1944, I went to La Taverne Alsacienne, a bar where many French people used to gather. It was midday and the restaurant was full, all the seats were taken. In the far end of the long and narrow room there was one single seat left. I asked the little fellow sitting on the other side of the bench if he accepted that I sit down in front of him. "But of course", he answered and stood up introducing himself: "Emmanuel Bove".
I answered him: "Uh... Jean Gaulmier."
- "Are you the person who makes the daily program on the radio?"
- "Yes, that's me. And you are Bove... the Bove of La Coalition?"
At that moment, there was a smile on this pale and thin face, a smile I will never forget, a smile that looked satisfied and at the same time a little sad:
- "You've read it?"
He listened to me and said nothing. He seemed astonished that he had readers even in Syria. He was sitting in front of a jar of water and some lamb chops, meaning a plate full of bones.
- "If you don't mind," I said to him, "I live on red wine, let's share a bottle of Mascara."
He lifted his arms towards the sky: "Well, well, you are a strong fellow."
- "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. What one is looking for in a book is not phrases, nor rythms - what one looks for is a man who can speak to men. Those are the ones who make true literature.

In October 1944, thanks to some jewellery pawned by Louise, the couple returns to France. After five years of voluntary silence, the writer exhausts himself making an effort to publish again. Once he's assured that his latest works - Le Piège, Non-Lieu and Départ dans la nuit - will be published, the writer falls ill. In bed with a fever, he doesn't leave his room again until he's dead. "My little rickety being makes me think of the cherries that are left on the plate" (Diary).

After his death, Emmanuel Bove enters a literary purgatory for more than thirty years. Other things are considered more important. People are asking for heroes... The universe of Emmanuel Bove doesn't fit in with the newly won liberty and the ideologies in vogue. His name is ignored in literary dictionaries, his books impossible to find. This long eclipse comes to an end thanks to the insistance and enthusiasm of a few readers, passed on to the editors. Samuel Beckett himself recommends the reading of Bove: "Like noone else, he has the feeling for the touching detail." Today, almost all his books have been reedited in France and abroad, especially in Germany through the initiative of his translator Peter Handke. As years go by, the work of Emmanuel Bove will surely continue to impose itself and like Raymond Cousse - his biographer - stated, there is no risk in predicting a Bovian eternity:

I have not asked anything extraordinary from life. I have only asked for one thing, which has always been refused to me. I have really fought to obtain it. This thing, other people find it without searching. This thing is neither money, nor friendship, nor glory. It's a place amongst men, a place for me, a place that will be recognized as mine without envy, as there will be nothing enviable about it. This place would not be different from the people who occupy it. It would just be respectable. (Mémoires d'un homme singulier, 1939)

Cet article est disponible en français aussi.
Overview of translations of Bove's works into different languages.
This article is © copyright Jean-Luc Bitton 1997.
Translated from French by Teresa Wennberg.

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