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My Friends by Emmanuel Bove; translated by Janet Louth (Carcanet: $15.95; 149 pp.)

March 16, 1986|Julia O'Faolain | O'Faolain's fifth novel, "The Irish Signorina," will be published this spring by Adler & Adler. and

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."

The graphic accuracy of these perceptions exhilarates the reader but not, of course, Baton himself, who is hemmed in by the limits of the narrow world he inventories. Swinging between irresolute optimism and a bleak mistrust, he muffs every chance to make the friend he longs to have, and the ones referred to in the title are all brief encounters. They elude or disappoint him. "People who like me a little or understand me," he ingenuously notes, "are so hard to find." His resilience is like that of comic-strip characters who survive disasters without learning from them. Tunnel-visioned, he describes his existence in terms of domestic minutiae, and the great technical triumph of this novel is that these convey far more than he actually tells, both about his way of living and about the hankering depths of his character. Thus, getting up each morning, he first puts on his socks because otherwise "matches would stick to the soles of my feet," and when lying in bed he keeps his hand away from his heart, "for there is nothing which frightens me so much as that regular beat which I do not control and which could so easily stop."

Minimal events resonate in his empty life. As he says himself, "Rich people are not like us . . . they do not pay so much attention to details." He, by contrast, broods on them obsessively, charging them with such fanciful significance that he gets things hilariously wrong. Discomfortingly, much of what happens to him is his own fault and in the end, our response is an appalled amusement as it becomes clear that illusions born of poverty and solitude are likely to perpetuate these. Baton is an unreliable narrator whose alienation is at once the source and outcome of the events narrated in this brief, harsh and brilliant little book.

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