Sunday, August 26, 2012

Master of the Touching Detail

Beckett said of him, "More than anyone else he has the instinct for the touching detail." Anyone who has read the works of Emmanuel Bove (1898 - 1945) would agree. This is especially the case with Bove's first novel, Mes Amis, translated as My Friends and published when its author was only twenty four. It opens:
When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hairs cover my forehead. I spread my fingers and bush it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again. ... When I bow my head I can feel that my bears has grown: it pricks my neck.
And later, when the unnamed protagonist encounters a fellow tenant:
Every Tuesday Madame Lecoin does her washing on the landing. The tap runs all day. As the big jugs fill up, the sound changes. Mme Lecoin's skirt is old-fashioned. Her bun is so scanty you can see all the hair-pins.
The whole of Bove's short first novel, which he divided into brief chapters, most of them titled after a character either befriended by or whom his sad, impoverished, and ashamed hero wishes to befriend, might be described as a compendium of such telling details, details of the sort that I'm forever urging upon my students in my ceaseless campaign to have them inject more authenticity into their work.

And Bove's work is nothing if not achingly authentic. His position as a figure in literature is peculiar and extraordinary both for the early and significant impression he made on those at the highest levels of the literary scene in Paris after the first World War, and for its catastrophic plunge into obscurity with the advent of World War II, after which he and his work were practically forgotten.

And yet Bove was one of those very rare writers who through their particular voices create a world all their own, in his case one of deep empathy and raw sincerity. He was an obsessively private man who shunned publicity at every turn (how far would he have gotten in this exhibitionist age of blogs, tweets, and facebook pages?).

The child of an impoverished immigrant Jew married to a housemaid, Emmanuel Bobovnikov was born in Paris in 1898. His childhood home was so full of fleas he and his older brother made a hobby of crushing them with their fingers. At regular intervals they faced eviction, with the furniture piled on the steps, their father nowhere to be found and Bove's penniless mother at a total loss. Things improved (financially, anyway) when his philandering father took up with Emily Overweg, a wealthy English painter. Through her Bove was exposed to a world of artists, paintings, and books. This exposure to culture came at a great cost. While Bove gained an artistic education, he was wracked by feelings of guilt for his forsaken mother and divided family.

When in his 17th year his father died, Bove found himself on his own, living in fleabag hotels in Paris, working a series of odd jobs, and even doing time in the Santé prison owing to his inability to pay his bills and a foreign-sounding last name. This period of misery is well-recorded in Bove's first and subsequent novels. It was relieved by his being called to duty in 1918, an event that must have come as a relief but which was soon cut short by the armistice. The freshly demobilized Bove met and married a young school teacher named Suzanne Valois with whom he moved to Austria. In that war-ravished landscape Bove's daughter and his first novel were both conceived.

It was the author Colette who first "discovered" Bove through his first novel, which she championed, and which was published to great critical acclaim, with critics comparing Bove to Dostoyevsky and Proust, and Max Jacob, André Gide, and Rilke among Bove's admirers. Despite all this attention and admiration, or because of it, Bove found himself withdrawing more and more from society. In the summer of 1925 he left his wife and two children to marry a young socialite Jewess named Louise Ottensooser, whose high lifestyle not only made him feel out of place but soon had him working to support three households, including that of his mother and brother. During this period between the wars he wrote nearly a dozen novels, each written in that bold, naked, and direct style informed by intimate, poignant, obsessively observed details:
The falling rain scissored the lights. I pressed my five spread fingers to my throat to keep my overcoat collar up around my neck. I thought of that bare hand of mine gleaming like some star within the strangeness of my appearance. It was only ten-thirty. I walked down boulevard Saint-Michele. "Racing finals, all the racing finals!" the newspaper hawkers were shouting. The finals? Could it be that there were people who had not yet heard them, who had not had time to buy a paper? . . . This lot that had been bestowed to me, what a singular one it was!
In 1928 Bove won the Figuière Prize, the highest honor available to a French author at that time. In response he wrote:
"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." 
The statement is not only telling with respect to the author in question, but with respect to the whole idea of what it means to be a writer in this world. "Life is not literary." Were truer words ever uttered? It might even be said that life is the opposite of literary, directly opposed to the self-conscious pursuit that is literature, or anyway opposed to self-conscious literature. Though his protagonists are deeply self-conscious to the point of embarrassment, though nothing escapes their painfully sensitive notice, like Flaubert's ideal creator their author is everywhere visible and nowhere to be seen. And yet he is there, always, hidden behind each and every one of those touching, magnificently observed details.

The Figuière Prize marked the beginning of the end of Bove's literary ascendancy, as well as the start of a long period of financial decline, poverty, and ill-health. A stock market collapse ruined his second wife. The couple retreated first to the countryside of Paris, and then, when war broke out once more and following France's surrender to Germany, to Vichy, where, though he kept writing, Bove refused to publish under the occupation. Unable to tolerate life in the Vichy regime, he and his wife exiled themselves to Algiers, where Bove wrote in a small room overlooking the port, and where he contracted the malaria that would kill him in 1945, at age 47.

Today Bove is remembered, if at all, by a handful of enthusiastic writers who either stumbled upon his work on their own (as I did one day in the dusty stacks of the Mercantile Library in Manhattan), or heard of him from other enthusiastic writers. The term "writer's writer" packs as much of a chill as those freeze bags you put in coolers, such is its link to obscurity. With Bove there's no avoiding it. He may be the ultimate writer's writer, admired by anyone familiar with his work who is dedicated to making meaning out of words, ignored by or unknown to all others.

If one can take him at his word—and Bove was nothing if not sincere—he himself would not have disapproved or resisted this final verdict on his life and work:
“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.”
—Bove, Mémoires d'un homme singulier, 1939

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