Henri Duchemin and His Shadows: Emmanuel Bove

Lost, desperate, isolated characters inhabit Emmanuel Bove’s short story collection Henri Duchemin and His Shadows (1928). While the characters are sometimes isolated due to circumstance, it’s primarily their inner thoughts and private fears that separate them from mainstream society.  The dominant threads here are broken relationships, absorbing disillusionment and coming to terms with a less-than-satisfactory life. Naturally, most of the disillusion occurs in relationships between men and women.

Night Crime is set on Christmas Eve with the title character, Henri Duchemin, mired in a life of poverty turning desperately to a stranger for sympathy, but he’s told that if he’s that unhappy, he should just kill himself.

He closed his window and, motionless in front of the only armchair, he saw women everywhere, in the depths of the walls, standing on his bed, languidly waving their arms. No, he would not kill himself. At forty a man is still young and can, if he perseveres, become rich.

Henri Duchemin dreamed of supplicants, of owning houses, of freedom. But once his imagination had calmed down, it seemed the disorder of his room had grown, in contrast as it was with his reveries.

This is a nightmarish, surreal tale in which Duchemin is tempted by a stranger to commit a crime which will supposedly solve all of his problems.

In Another Friend, a poor man is befriended by a wealthy stranger. The poor man imagines that he has met someone, finally, who will be an understanding friend, only to discover that the stranger collects poor people and gets some strange satisfaction from giving them a meal and listening to their tales of woe.

Henri ducheminIn Night Visit, marital woes between Paul and Fernande spill over on to Paul’s friend, Jean. Paul worships Fernande and describes her in the most glowing terms, but Jean finds Fernande to be a “rather corpulent, rather common woman.” Who can explain why we love some people while we ignore others who are far more suitable? Here’s the story’s final passage which, on the surface, would seem to have little to do with the subject.

An automobile on its way to Les Halles passed very close to us. In the pure, freezing air, it left such a circumscribed scent of vegetables that when we took one step to the side, we could not smell it any more. In the middle of the sleeping city, beneath the sky, we were alone. The moon had disappeared. And without it, as if they lacked a leader, the stars seemed to be in disarray.

In What I Saw  the narrator, Jean (possibly the character from the previous tale) tells the story of his girlfriend, Henriette. While the narrator stresses how much he loves his girlfriend who is “as sweet as an angel,” we get the impression that beneath the surface, there’s an undercurrent of problems. Some of these problems are manifested in the narrator’s insufferable attitude towards females in general: “One shouldn’t ask too much of a woman,” for example.  There are hints that he’s been unfaithful perhaps, but he’s always forgiven, and when he tests her love with questions, she always gives the right responses.

 Even though she is beautiful, she recognizes that a man’s lapse is not as great as a woman’s.

Through the narrator’s description of his girlfriend, a picture of Henriette gradually builds. There’s nothing to fault in what she says or what she does, but somehow, once again, there’s a feeling of unease.

Candy, cake, fruit-she always goes without in order to offer them to me and, if I don’t take them, because I know how fond she is of them, she insists with so much love that I would be hurting her if I continued to refuse them. Nothing exists for her. She sees all of life through me.

Is this woman a saint? Or has she honed her manipulative skills to a fine point? Or is she merely holding her own in this relationship in which the narrator completely underestimates the female sex?

In Is it A Lie?, my favourite in this collection, a much older husband, Mr. Marjanne must confront his wife’s infidelity when she provides a very flimsy story excusing an overnight absence. This short story takes us through Claire Marjanne’s ridiculous version of events, and as a result we become both witnesses and participants in her fabrication. Taking the moral high ground, she grasps the power in the marital relationship and then Claire manipulates her husband, drawing him into her web of lies, liberally casting details and logic as though these will base her story in reality.

“None of that tells me where you spent the night. You had to sleep somewhere, after all.”

“If you interrupt me one more time, I’m warning you I won’t tell you another thing. You think it’s amusing to recount everything in such detail? Listen to me now. So I leave Le Printemps. It was exactly six-thirty and I say to myself “Robert must be waiting for me, I’ve got to hurry.” But instead of taking a cab in front of the store–you know how crowded it is there, I would have waited for an hour–I go on foot to boulevard Malsherbes. And right then, when I am on the corner of rue du Havre, I run into–you’ll never guess who. Who do you think?’

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, guess.”

“Maud!”

“No, no. I told you a moment ago that I had left her at Madeleine’s “

In Mr. Marjanne’s mind Claire was only trying to give the illusion of truth. To be less alone with her lie, she wanted to make her husband participate in it. But he was determined not to let himself be dragged into it and simply answered: “I don’t know” and “What can I say?”

Is he wise to accept his wife’s ridiculous story and ignore her suspected infidelity or has he just opened the door to future misery?

Bove is not a first tier writer–well at least not for this book. Some of the narrators, who suffer from a sameness in tone, ramble, repetitively before getting on with their stories. One of the blurbs connects Bove’s stories to the female characters in the novels of Jean Rhys. I’d disagree, and if you’re hoping to find Jean Rhys-type stories here, you’ll be disappointed. Bove’s main characters are lost males, and if there are women in their lives, then the women are lying to them, cheating on them, or simply moving on. The story Henri Duchemin and His Shadows gives a glimpse of café culture, reminiscent of Rhys, and a hard, acid-tongued woman who tells the title character to stop whining and just kill himself. Ultimately the women here are the tough ones–they survive and move on leaving their men wondering just what went wrong.

Resurrected by New York Review books. Translated by Alyson Waters

Review copy

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19 Comments

Filed under Bove Emmanuel, Fiction

19 responses to “Henri Duchemin and His Shadows: Emmanuel Bove

  1. I’ve never heard of this; I checked, it’s OOP in French in that format but can be found in an omnibus edition.

    I like the idea that Henriette is not weak at all but playing her husband’s game to have more freedom. (Sometimes, being underestimated is an asset) It reminds me of Cheese by Elschott. The way the man speaks lets you understand his wife is a lot more intelligent than him and he’s clueless about it.

    I wonder if Emmanuel Bove would have written the same stories before WWI and the place it gave to women to replace absent men.

    I’ve also looked at his bio and it seems that his life and his career have a lot to thank to welcoming or influencial women.

  2. Jonathan

    The dominant threads here are broken relationships, absorbing disillusionment and coming to terms with a less-than-satisfactory life.

    That alone is enough to sell it to me 🙂 I hope to read this soon as it sounds like my type of book – and I’m becoming weary of novels.

  3. It is interesting that it is the women who seem to come out with the advantage in all of these stories.

    I wonder if this is a reflection of Bove’s real life experiences.

  4. It certainly doesn’t sound much like Rhys if the women are the survivors. But perhaps the blurb meant that the male author puts his characters in much the same position as Rhys puts her female ones – always on the outside trying to work out the secrets of the inner world of the other sec that is so much more powerful. From the stories you describe it seems the theme of being the outsider is quite a strong one.

  5. Like Jonathan, I’m drawn to your opening description of broken relationships and disillusioned characters coming to terms with their lives. It sounds like another great find from NYRB.

  6. I keep seeing this on the shelf at one of my favourite stores. As with so many NYRB titles it just *looks* so good. Your review has me even more intrigued. Thank you.

  7. This sounds like a good selection of stories, there is nothing like a bit of disillusionment in other’s lives to make you feel more content with your own! 😉

  8. It sounds brutal, in a very quiet way. Are the stories individually each fairly short? I got that vibe somehow.

    Anyway, it sounds an excellent collection. I’ll look out for it.

    • I liked it Max–didn’t love it. My biggest complaint would be that some of the voices sounded the same. It’s only 160 pages and the stories vary in length. My favourite: Is it a Lie? was also the most concise. Some of the other stories had the lost, aimless characters rambling a bit before getting into the meat of their stories.

  9. I also enjoy concision in short stories. By concision I guess I mean rich but condensed. I haven’t heard of Emmanuel Bove before, so thanks for introducing me. I like Colette a lot.

  10. I think I’ve got one of his books but I’m not sure which one. This doesn’t sound like it’s for me..

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