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. After being out of print for decades, they have only recently begun to be reissued in France, where this one came out in 1977.
Emmanuel Bove's neglect may be partly ascribable to his death in 1945: a year when literary attention was focused on the future. Also: His sensibility belongs very much to his own time. "My Friends" reads like an archetype. It catches the pathos of vintage films and fictions about wistful plain folk struggling through the hard years between the two world wars. Reading it evokes the stoic humor of hand-to-mouth lives as described in the work of Rene Clair and Beckett.
The narrator, Victor Baton, is a Chaplinesque figure who does not, however, elicit easy sympathy. A wounded World War I veteran, he has a tiny pension, chooses not to work and must live very austerely if he is to "maintain (my) little independence." The novel is made up of episodes in which he is ineffectually stirred by hopes of friendship, love and money. "Oh, how I should love to be rich!" he yearns, but instead is stuck in a mean Paris of soup kitchens, greasy spoons, rented rooms, surly concierges, germs and dirt. This reality is presented in close-up images of a cinematic clarity. When a fat woman bends, "her skirt splits open at the back like a chestnut"; a butcher's block "is worn down in the middle like a step" and a stove pipe is "tied up with a rag like a knee."