Before NYRB Classics announced that they were bringing out a book of stories by French writer Emmanuel Bove, I’d never heard of the author (though quite a few of his books were brought into English in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Nevertheless, when looking at a description of the collection, entitled Henri Duchemin and His Shadows (tr. from the French by Alyson Waters, 2015), I was excited and pretty convinced it was going to be one of my favorite reads of 2015. A “cast of stubborn isolatoes who call to mind Melville’s Bartleby, Walser’s ‘little men,’ and Rhys’s lost women”? That calls to me. The book didn’t disappoint.
My favorite of the seven stories included in this collection is the first one, called “Night Crimes.” “Night Crimes” sets the tone for the whole collection nicely — and, it seems, quite deliberately, as it’s the only story that concerns forty-year-old Henri Duchemin (the rest deal with other forlorn characters who are nicely referred to as shadows in the title). It takes place on Christmas Eve. When we first meet Henri, he is looking to leave a restaurant where he has apparently sat for some time, but he can’t quite leave:
Tired of sitting still, he was preparing to leave when he recalled the dark hallway of his house, the damp courtyard, the narrow stairway, and his unheated attic room.
A pleasant holiday does not await Henri, so why not align himself with the others at the restaurant, even if he’s a pretty wretched figure in their midst. Henri does finally go home and to bed. After falling asleep, he is awakened by his neighbor, Monsieur Leleu. This being Christmas Eve, and this visit taking place soon after Henri has fallen asleep, we may wonder if this is a sly inversion of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s worthy of a long passage:
He had been sleeping for a long time when he felt the heat of a flame on his check, a little like someone’s breath.
He opened his eyes.
Monsieur Leleu was beside him holding a lamp.
Monsieur Leleu was a calm fifty-year-old man who lived in poverty. He was interested in the lives of criminals and always sided with the police. He read the local crime news but never detective novels because he felt uncomfortable reading tales of things that did not exist.
“Are you asleep, Duchemin?”
Monsieur Leleu set his lamp on the fireplace mantel. It continued to light the floor.
“I need to speak with you, Henri.”
Monsieur Leleu stroked his beard, honing it to a point.
“Do you remember the woman in the café?”
“You have to do what she told you.”
“You think I must?”
“Yes, because you are unhappy.”
The rain, driven by the wind, relentlessly bombarded the windowpanes.
“But I wouldn’t dare.”
“Why not, Henri? I’ve brought you a rope. The slipknot has been made. You see, everything is ready. I’ll come back once you’re dead; that way, no one will suspect me.”
Monsieur Leleu rose.
“You’ll come back once I’m dead!”
“Yes. I’ll wake the other tenants. Adieu. I’ll leave you the lamp; I’ll retrieve it later.”
Monsieur Leleu went out without a sound.
Do not hope to live a better life, Henri; end the one you have, this night-time visitor seems to say. But Henri, suddenly scared of dying, chooses to flee. Remarkably, he stumbles on a way to get a lot of money, leading us to the crime in the title. It’s a dark, dreamy little tale, filled with wonderful details like that candle heat that feels like someone’s breath.
Many of the remaining six stories often explore impoverished men who seem to be drifting through life as if in a dream. In “Another Friend,” a wealthy man befriends one of these poor men, but we soon realize it’s just an obsession the wealthy man has: he thrives on his charity.
But, though it is a prevalent theme, poverty is not the only theme, and perhaps not even the primary theme running through these stories. Many also look at our own faulty perception, our own inability to know what is happening in the world around us. For example, in “What I Saw,” the narrator is pleading with us, his readers, to listen to his story about his wife, a story that his wife denies. He is positive that one day he saw her kissing another man. He knows it. He swears it. His mind could not have deceived him, and yet he understands that as this moment of certainty drifts into the murkiness of memory no one will believe his certainty, perhaps not even himself. So he desperately asks us to hear him out, listen to his excuses and all, and let him know: was he mistaken. In “Is It a Lie?” a man must deal with unknowability the morning after his wife has stayed out all night. She says all of the right things to reassure him, but it will never be enough.
Other narrators ask us to listen to their story for somewhat similar purposes: to judge the teller. In “The Story of a Mad Man,” the narrator decides to leave everyone dear to him. He’s moving on. He’s cutting all connections. He’s confident about this track, yet in the very act of telling us, in the act of needing to justify his actions, he lets slip that he’s not all too sure. Here’s how he addresses us toward the end of his story:
I have an idea. Tomorrow morning I will carry it out. And then you will be forced to understand. Above all, do not say a word.
We have an inkling what that idea is.
These men — whether because of poverty or because they simply lose confidence in their own story — are perfect shadows of Henri Duchemin, and I’m very excited at the prospect of discovering more work from Emmanuel Bove. May his lost souls find their way to us.