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Library of Babel: My Friends

Thursday, February 4, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Emmanuel Bove’s slender first novel My Friends follows World War One veteran Victor Baton down some of the the seediest alleys in Paris in a futile search for companionship. The novel’s title is ironic because, in fact, Baton has no friends, and though his misery would love to find some company, Baton chooses potential friends poorly and is either betrayed by or alienates them each in short order. The novel is charming in its sympathy for the down-and-out, for characters who don’t fit into the obvious order of things, and it shines when it portrays the emotional complexities of well-intentioned but damaged and ultimately self-serving people. The wry glint and ironic humor of the scenes keeps them from becoming maudlin or depressing.

The highlight of the book is Baton’s encounter with Neveu, a friendless, depressed man who is collecting stones along the Seine. When Baton approaches to ask why Neveu is collecting stones, Neveu tells him that he is about to drown himself, and he needs ballast to drag him to the bottom of the river. Baton decides to help Neveu collect stones, and then he decides to throw himself into the river as well. By the time they’ve collected enough stones to do the job, Neveu and Baton have become friends, and they decide to go to a cafe instead of killing themselves; but Neveu takes advantage of Baton’s generosity, spends all of his money on wine and then disappears into a brothel with Baton’s last penny. Baton never sees him again. It is difficult to imagine from this description that the scene is funny, but it is.

The novel’s clarity, wit and emotional complexity save it from pathos, and Baton’s plight, like the plight of Gregor in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” represents the dilemma of the alienated modern individual. Baton is ambitious in his way but does not want the mind-numbing low-wage jobs he can get; he’s poor and lonely, but he can’t connect to the impoverished loners around him; and his war injuries make him both a hero and an embarrassment to his society, which can no longer understand him. My Friends is smart, droll and surprisingly companionable for a book about alienation; it makes you feel—just as Baton feels about his absent friends in the novel—affectionate toward its author and certain that you could never get along with him. Originally published in 1924, the English translation by Janet Louth appeared in 2000.

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2 Responses to “Library of Babel: My Friends”

  1. Raquelle says:

    This is the sort of book I really should have read as an undergrad in college when I was alone and friendless and pretty desperate for some type of human connection.

    The scene with the two characters on the river Seine sort of reminds me of Laurel & Hardy in Flying Deuces. Hardy wants to kill himself by drowning in the river and wants Laurel to help him out. I believe he wants Laurel to die right along side him. But of course, things get in the way and the decide to join the Foreign Legion instead. Ha!

    • Mark says:

      Bove’s little book will still speak to you, I think. You know, I’ve never seen a single Laurel and Hardy film—I think I’ll have to correct that with Flying Deuces!


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