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November 22, 1987|Stewart Lindh

ARMAND by Emmanuel Bove, translated by Jane Louth (Carcanet: $17.95; 111 pp.).

Serendipity in literature occurs not only when a new writer steps from the present but arrives from the past.

Emmanuel Bove's life offers a meager menagerie of detail. Born in 1898 in Paris, Bove achieved early recognition through Colette's encouragement of his stories. A well-educated man embarked on a career in belles-lettres, Bove's mental and physical well-being were shattered by the death of his Russian-Jewish father. Bove withdrew into despair and poverty, dying of malaria in 1945.

What remains of Bove, aside from the praise of such writers as Rilke, Gide and Beckett, are two novels--"My Friends" and "Armand."

At 30, Armand, the narrator of the novel bearing his name, has escaped the struggle for existence to become the kept man of a petite bourgeoise. A chance encounter provokes Armand into inviting an indigent friend from the bare days back to "his" apartment for lunch. Studying the man's frayed cuffs and worn manners, amid polished marble and stained teak, Armand senses the abyss separating him from his former self . He experiences the pathetic poverty of his friend as a reflection of his own--before he yielded to pleasure. Armand has sold out and glimpses his former life in the wobbly pride of his companion, arrogant in that desperate pose of the poor because they have nothing else to show for themselves.

In the midst of post-card beauty, Paris is a wicked city for the poor. The leaden skies lock cold, damp air in place from October through March. It is this season of shivers, when a tranche of bread is a meal and stamping feet, a weak heater, that Armand knows too well. He has stepped out of the cold and into a different kind of winter--hypocrisy. He knows he should be without and with himself , rather than with and alone .

This quality of alienation makes "Armand" a sort of ghost story--the haunted perceptions of a man looking out at the life he no longer lives.

The translation is good enough for the shadow of the French words to disappear inside those of the English. Displayed throughout is the French knack for distilling maxims from moments: "Like many women she thought that a significant look could be understood by the man she loved."

"Armand" possesses a sad, lonely tone--like music heard across water. One is captivated by the sound, as fragile as the air on which it travels, before it ends.

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