Master of the Touching Detail: Emmanuel Bove, the Ultimate Writer’s Writer
By Peter Selgin •
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 by Janet Louth as My Friends and published when its author was only twenty-four. My Friends 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 beard 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 hairpins.
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 creative writing students in a 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 and a sensibility all their own, in his case one of deep empathy and raw, guileless sincerity. Bove 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 and 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 the 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 their divided family.
When in his seventeenth year Bove’s father died, he found himself on his own, living in fleabag hotels in Paris, working a series of menial odd jobs, and even doing time in the Santé prison owing to his inability to pay his bills and for his foreign-sounding last name. This period of misery is well-recorded in Bove’s first and in subsequent novels of his. It was relieved only by his being summoned in 1918 to the trenches of World War I, but even that hellish adjournment was cut short by the armistice. The freshly demobilized Bove met and married a young schoolteacher named Suzanne Valois with whom he moved to Austria. In that war-ravished landscape Bove’s daughter and his first novel were both conceived.
One of the readers of that first novel-in-manuscript was Colette. Thanks largely to her championing of it, it was published to great critical acclaim. Critics compared Bove to Dostoyevsky and Proust. Max Jacob, André Gide, and Rilke were among his admirers. Yet despite all of this attention and admiration, or possibly 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 Louise Ottensooser, a young socialite Jewish woman whose high lifestyle not only made Bove feel even more 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 in his signature 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. Bove’s response to this honor was characteristically humble:
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 Bove, but regarding 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, that it’s directly opposed to the self-conscious pursuit known as “literature,” or at any rate opposed to self-conscious literature. Though his protagonists are deeply self-conscious to the point of embarrassment, though nothing escapes their painfully sensitive sensibilities, like Flaubert’s ideal creator, their author is everywhere visible and nowhere to be seen. Yet there he is, always, hidden behind each and every one of those touching, perfectly observed details.
The Figuière Prize marked the beginning of the end of Bove’s literary ascendancy and 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 the Second World War broke out, following France’s surrender to Germany, to Vichy, where, though he continued to write, 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, in 1945, at age forty-seven, killed him.
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 what was then still called the Mercantile Library in Manhattan), or learned of him from other enthusiastic writers. The term “writer’s writer,” with its association with obscurity, packs as much of a chill as those ice packs one puts into coolers. With Bove there’s no avoiding it. Bove may be the ultimate writer’s writer, admired by all familiar with his work who have dedicated themselves to making meaning out of words, ignored by—or unknown to—all others.
Assuming that we take him at his word—and he was nothing if not sincere—Bove would not have objected to his literary legacy. As he wrote in his Mémoires d’un homme singulier (1939):
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.
PETER SELGIN is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. He has written a novel, several children’s books, and three books on the craft of writing, most recently Your First Page: First Pages and What They Tell Us about the Pages that Follow Them. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, his memoir-in-essays, was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. His memoir, The Inventors, won the 2017 Housatonic Book Award. His second essay collection, The Kuhreihen Melody: Nostalgic Essays, was recently published by Serving House Books. His full-length drama, A God in the House, based on Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his “suicide machine,” premiered at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and was optioned for Off-Broadway. A visual artist as well as a writer, Selgin’s paintings and illustrations have been featured in The New Yorker, Forbes, Gourmet, Outside, and other publications. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he is art director and nonfiction editor of Arts & Letters, an international journal of poetry and prose.