I read a collection of stories from Emmanuel Bove: Henri Duchemin and His Shadows and thought I’d try one of his out-of-print novellas. Thematically and stylistically, I can see the link between the stories and the novellas, but for this reader, the stories were much more successful.
Armand is another of Bove’s lost, desperate isolated characters, but when the novella begins, Armand isn’t so desperate any more. The reason: Armand lives with Jeanne rather comfortably these days. But all the barriers Armand has placed between himself and poverty come tumbling down when he runs into an old friend, Lucien; it’s been a year since they met, and frankly Armand doesn’t seem thrilled to have met this old friend. Politeness takes over, and after an initial jolt, Armand invites Lucien to a nearby cafe.
How you have changed, Armand! You must be rich now. You could not come to our restaurant any more. Do you remember last year?
The soda-water was still bubbling in my aperitif. I held my cigarette where it was dry to throw it away. I took a fresh one. It was so sunny I did not know if my match would alight or not.
Indeed I could remember my past life. That was finished now. But I guessed that Lucien himself still took his meals in the same restaurants and lived in the same room.
The meeting is awkward and ends with Armand inviting Lucien to lunch the next day, and this meeting is even more awkward. It’s clear that Lucien doesn’t want to leave, and Jeanne is offended by Lucien’s remarks. Armand’s present and past cannot mingle, but Armand promises to visit Lucien the next day.
From this point, Armand’s life begins to unravel. He seems ashamed of his cushy life with Jeanne. But what exactly is Armand? A gigolo? A cross-dresser? These are all terms that came to mind as I read Emmanuel Bove’s Armand and puzzled through the title character’s relationships.
I wondered briefly if I should put on one of Jeanne’s dresses. She liked me to dress as she did and pretend to be a woman.
I could, if I felt like it, describe this novel in a few sentences that would make it sound much more interesting than it really was: cross-dressing gigolo Armand, who has formerly lived in poverty and who is now kept by a woman, runs into an old friend. Mortified by shame, he engages in self-sabotage.
But for this reader, the execution of what could have been a really great novella, fell short, and instead Armand felt like a good start, a skeleton, of something else. Some of the more intriguing aspects of the plot: Armand’s feelings towards Jeanne for example, are largely absent, yet there are hints that he doesn’t like her touch. There were times when the relationship between Armand and Lucien contained overtones–almost as though Lucien is Armand’s doppelgänger, but again there are just hints. The incident with Lucien’s sister seemed rushed and created for plot development. The style grated at times, and I could imagine a creative writing teacher harping on about expository writing:
We sat outside where heating was provided by three silver braziers. We crushed pistachio nuts under our feet. The siphons were enclosed in wire to stop them exploding.
Translated by Janet Louth