Born in 1898 in Paris, Emmanuel Bove was the son of a Ukrainian Jew and a housemaid from Luxembourg. ("Bove" was a shortened version of his father's surname - Bobovnikoff.) His family were among the myriad poor of Paris, and Bove had a hard childhood. As a teenager, he was a waiter in a café, washed dishes in a restaurant, worked in the Renault factory, drove a tramway car, and served a month in prison. His ambition, however, was to be a writer, and Colette became his sponsor. Bove ended up writing over a dozen novels and books of short stories. Among his admirers were Rilke, Gide, and Beckett. During WWII Bove was a Gaullist and under Vichy rule he refused to publish and he and his second wife had to go underground. In July 1945 Bove died in Paris of malarial fever (contracted in Algiers).
"Mes Amis", or MY FRIENDS, was Bove's first novel, published in 1924 when he was only twenty-six. It appears to be his most famous novel, and many reportedly think it his best. It certainly is distinctive. The first-person narrator, Victor Bâton, is a wounded veteran of World War I, trying to eke out existence in Paris on a 50% disability pension. He is about as sorry and sorrowful a character as one finds in literature. He also is alone, which is his continuing plaint: "Being alone is hard to bear." "All I ask is to be allowed to love, to have some friends - and I always live alone." "I am poor, without friends, without luggage." Etc.
Aside from a prologue and an epilogue of sorts, the novel consists of five chapters, each dedicated to the fleeting, flickering acquaintance Victor makes with a different person. They are "Mes Amis" - a poignant and pathetic irony.
Victor has a fascination with women's breasts. He fantasizes about respectable marriage and sudden good fortune. One moment he is distrustful and misanthropic; the next he is credulous and magnanimous. Always he is self-pitying and lonely. He tells the tale of his existence in short, simple, straightforward sentences. The novel is only 150 pages in length. It contains many nicely observed details of impoverished urban life, circa 1920 - a life Bove knew well.
A blurb on the back of my paperback published by Carcanet is so apt I will close with it: "If Marcel Marceau's eternally yearning little man could remove his mask and find a voice, he might look and sound like this one."