on In The Train, a novel by Christian Oster, trans. by Adriana Hunter (Object Press)

French novelist Christian Oster has published five novels since Dans le train appeared in 2002, the same year Claude Berri released his film Une femme de ménage (“A Cleaning Woman”) based on Oster’s 2001 novel of that title. In 2007, Random House published his novel The Unforeseen (L’Imprévu, 2005). Now sixty-two, Oster is a major literary figure in France but his accomplishments are barely recognized in the United States. OsterVNeck.jpegIn 1999, his seventh novel, Mon grand apartement, won the Prix Médicis. Translated by Jordan Stump, My Big Apartment was published in 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press.

Now, Richard di Santo’s Object Press of Toronto has issued In The Train, Oster’s short novel about twenty-four hours in the lives of Frank and Anne who meet on a station platform in Paris. Seeing that she is carrying a heavy bag, Frank (the narrator) offers to hold it for her. He says:

“At that point she preempted me and put her bag down on the platform, at her feet, and only then did I realize that I was putting terrible pressure on her. Because she didn’t want to let go of it, her bag. I could see that. She was only relinquishing it to avoid my help. Running the risk of dirtying it, because of me. I felt guilty, when all I had intended was to do her a favor, and I wanted to make amends for this. I said no, that’s not what I meant. I didn’t want you to put it down, you’ll get it dirty, on the bottom, maybe I’m exaggerating the point, though, or I could be wrong. If you could put my mind at rest on that, and just tell me you don’t mind, I’d feel better. Or maybe I really am right, in which case tell me that too, it wouldn’t put my mind at rest, but perhaps I could do something about it, don’t you think?”

When Anne boards her train to Gournon, so does he – his original destination is undisclosed. Here at the outset of the story, the reader can’t tell if an amorous or hapless adventure has begun – but Frank’s avowals suggest that something critical is going to happen: “It’s just that I had found her and, even though she was just one among countless others, having found her I couldn’t fail to sort of lose her, in those circumstances.”

OsterCover.jpgWhether a relationship is forming or not, Frank’s story is streaked with – and mainly consists of – his own off-balance, hypersensitive, doubt-riddled, comically digressive mind. Although Oster is famous for deflating the sensitivities of the post-modern male, he doesn’t stand at an authorial remove. The fluently cerebral narrative works in part due to his affection for his characters’ stumblings.

In an interview with di Santo, Oster says In The Train culminates his evolution “from the concealment of affect by means of distance and humor – characteristics of my first novels – to the revealing of affect.” But writers insist on “evolution” while our readers are grateful for variations on the familiar. Distance and humor are the key attributes of In The Train. More than a narrator, Frank is an observer of himself and Anne, an ordinary man packaged with the age’s analytical habits of mind. The analysis, however, presents only another curious surface. As for "the revealing of affect," yes, Oster is focused on it as well. Frank's remarks are less storytelling than a transcript of keenly recalled reaction.

After they take separate hotel rooms in Gournon, Frank learns that Ann has traveled there to meet a man – in fact, the man has just left her hotel room where she now feels badly used. He says:

“It was starting to wear me down, this whole performance, even though it had come to an end. It continued working on me all by itself now. Especially because of this desire, that I no longer had, mind you, but remembering that I had had it weighed on me, and I knew I would again, I’m not naïve, not on the front. So there was nothing particularly dazzling about my desire, or the memory of it, because after what Anne had told me, if I were ever to have a place in her life, I couldn’t see how I would take it up. That man, the one who came to see her, had already filled it, filled the place I might have taken in a best-case scenario. So now Anne’s body could only be promised to me, in a pinch, as the body of someone who needed complete rehabilitation, with everything that entailed for her as a person, a soul.”

OsterColor.jpegFrank picks apart every nuance of his oddball tryst with Anne. But the force driving him to be there in the first place is impervious to analysis. In this way, Oster adds his contribution to the love story genre. The minutes are filled with observable details and describable appetites. But the characters waver like heat mirages among them. When Frank and Anne seem to move forward together, it sounds like this:

“Yes, yes, let’s go, she agreed, as if the two of us genuinely had something to get on with, a plan, basically, or some commitment to honor, and we were facing this commitment together, even if it wasn’t the same for both of us, like, say, a starving man and a depressive taking each other’s hands and waiting to see what happened, with all the implications that had of shared memories and trials confronted together. And I think that’s what spurred me on. This concept of helping each other. It was actually quite unsettling because, with the choices I’d made, I hadn’t done much to help other people in my life.”

Anne’s bag is filled with books and In The Train carries the heavy baggage of commitment like a sort of pre-existing condition of impulsive attachment for which there is no insurance. The air of strangeness in Oster’s fiction drifts out to him from influences like Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau (and, he says, “a tiny bit of Robbe-Grillet,” an understatement) and shares the more linear narrative energies of Jean Echenoz and Jean-Patrick Manchette (both of whom have been and will soon again be published in English translation).

OsterBridge.jpegFrank speaks of Anne: “She had the power over this world that I’d thought was so beyond her, on the platform at Saint-Lazare, she had a huge amount of power over things, even if having this power didn’t make her happy, quite the reverse, in fact, it was her unhappiness that made her strong, gave her a hold over everything, but mostly over me …” In The Train exerts a similar power over the reader who would by chance pick up this book the way Frank willingly and comically lugs his lover’s bag of words.

[Published March 12, 2010. 160 pages, $16.00 paperback original.]

Oster's work

Oster has also produced a score of children's books and three or four mystery novels. I agree wholeheartedly that his arrival among American readers is long past due. I noticed that some months ago you wrote on Andre Aciman's novel Eight White Nights. Oster's In The Train is essentially the same story: a man meets a woman, desires her, and is confused and frustrated by her. But Oster is a less conventional writer. Also, as he says in the interview you quote, he is much more concerned here with affect and this lets him do more with the language than Aciman. He's more lyrical in an offbeat manner and certainly funnier.