25 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on Christian Oster’s In the Train, which is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and available from the stylish Object Press.

Emily Davis is a grad student in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester, and is currently working on a number of projects, including a sample from Damian Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography. She was one of the many students in my class who loved In the Train for its creepyish humor . . . I think this book is absolutely brilliant, which is why we’re running this review more than a year after the book came out.

You know those niche documentaries about people who are really into some specialized hobby or interest—old-school arcade games, typography, central Asian throat singing? The ones that make you think: wow, these people are so kooky, they make me seem normal! and yet at the same time you can almost, in a way, see where they’re coming from? I don’t mean that you can necessarily relate to their specific interests, though naturally that is possible. For the majority of us who are neither typeface designers nor reigning Donkey Kong champions, though, what draws us to the protagonists of these films is their passion—persistent, imperfect, somehow essentially human—for their hobbies, their professions, their artistic pursuits.

In the Train is like that, in the sense that its narrator is undeniably odd and yet, despite—or maybe because of—his social ineptitude and mild-to-moderate neurosis (his characteristics and motivations are identifiably human, only taken to extremes), also strangely endearing.

Oster’s novel begins in a train station in Paris, where Frank, the narrator-protagonist, notices a woman (Anne) on the platform struggling with a heavy bag—which Frank immediately identifies as a potential premise for getting to know her. However, Frank does not operate on whim, exactly. On the surface, his actions may appear unhindered by a second thought, but the truth is that he thinks everything through and takes pains to justify (to himself, to the reader) every action that might otherwise seem out of the ordinary or socially unacceptable.

Click here to read the full piece.

25 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You know those niche documentaries about people who are really into some specialized hobby or interest—old-school arcade games, typography, central Asian throat singing? The ones that make you think: wow, these people are so kooky, they make me seem normal! and yet at the same time you can almost, in a way, see where they’re coming from? I don’t mean that you can necessarily relate to their specific interests, though naturally that is possible. For the majority of us who are neither typeface designers nor reigning Donkey Kong champions, though, what draws us to the protagonists of these films is their passion—persistent, imperfect, somehow essentially human—for their hobbies, their professions, their artistic pursuits.

In the Train is like that, in the sense that its narrator is undeniably odd and yet, despite—or maybe because of—his social ineptitude and mild-to-moderate neurosis (his characteristics and motivations are identifiably human, only taken to extremes), also strangely endearing.

Oster’s novel begins in a train station in Paris, where Frank, the narrator-protagonist, notices a woman (Anne) on the platform struggling with a heavy bag—which Frank immediately identifies as a potential premise for getting to know her. However, Frank does not operate on whim, exactly. On the surface, his actions may appear unhindered by a second thought, but the truth is that he thinks everything through and takes pains to justify (to himself, to the reader) every action that might otherwise seem out of the ordinary or socially unacceptable. Take this passage from the second page, an early glimpse into Frank’s inner monologue:

My immediate problem was knowing whether I should offer to carry it, her bag, or, more rationally, more economically, in terms of effort—as much mine as hers—to get her to agree to put it down. The second solution was definitely short on panache, on gallantry even. The first, in comparison with the second, didn’t have that obvious necessity without which any man feels that addressing a woman betrays premeditation.

Now there was nothing premeditated about what I was doing, I just instantly felt a need to help this woman.

The irony, of course, is in Frank’s trying to pass off his action as unpremeditated, immediately after having described exactly the thoughts he struggled with as he was premeditating it. This is just the beginning of the humor woven through the entire book. It is worth noting that the sole reason Frank has come to the station in the first place is not to go to any particular place for any particular reason, but, essentially, to pick up a woman:

At best, mind you, I was picturing a sort of honeymoon: I met her, she liked me, we more or less traveled together, depending on the availability of seats. It was more than the beginning of a story, it was a story. At worst, either I set off on my own or I went home to my apartment alone, having asked for a refund on my ticket.

If you think about it, the “at best” scenario is not so outlandish to imagine. And if you really think about it, who among frequent or even occasional train travelers has not entertained a similar storybook fantasy? People meet by chance in all sorts of places, and every so often those places are trains (in fact, I’m speaking from personal experience here—but I assure you the original and principal purpose of my taking an overnight train from Seattle to San José was to get home). Normal people might allow such a meeting to happen by chance, the companionship to develop naturally, whereas Frank has the express goal of making such a “chance” occurrence happen on purpose. As it happens—or rather, as it is made to happen—the “at best” scenario is more or less how the story plays out, thanks not to any special chemistry between Frank and Anne, but rather to Frank’s persistence and his patently strange, creepy, stalkerrific behavior.

Therein lies the vital difference—what makes the novel a parody of the human condition, specifically the human desire for companionship. As readers we can, on a certain logical and psychological level, understand Frank’s motivations; the difference is that he acts out in a way no person in their right mind would dare. And yet Frank’s constantly analyzing and justifying his thoughts and actions are clearly his attempt to demonstrate that he is in his right mind. This is part of what makes the book so hilarious, and the humor shines in Adriana Hunter’s English translation. There is a delicate balance to be found in the narrative voice of In the Train—a balance which, in order for the book to be effective both as a whole and at every point along the way, must have the reader continually teetering on the fulcrum between sympathizing with Frank and thinking him completely mad—a balance that Hunter has navigated with incredible sensitivity to nuances of rhythm and tone.

To better illustrate this seamless duality of the voice, here is one final example from the text. Having already accompanied Anne on the train and then secretly followed her to her hotel, Frank is now wrapped up in the task of locating her within the hotel by what seems to him a perfectly rational and unproblematic means: systematically knocking on the door of every guestroom in the building until Anne answers one of them.

In the meantime, more doors, other doors, kept opening. Some at the same time as each other, in fact, because my knocking proved so firm. It saved me time, at least. I gave my apologies to two people, even three or four at once. And on I went. On my travels I met a few reps, at least people who I took to be reps, initially seeing them just as sales people, sales representatives, but then, when I thought about it, simply as representatives of humanity, because I felt for the first time that I was meeting it, humanity. It was all there, it seemed to me, laid out in samples in that hotel, and every time a door opened the spectrum grew wider, I felt not only that I was integrating myself in it but that I too was opening, and all this, as usual, was because of a woman, it was always women who brought me to other people. Except that in this instance, as I’ve said, I’d never seen so many people, or established so much contact. So it was as if my sociability improved with every door, I felt more and more comfortable, and by the time I got to the last few doors it felt like a routine, I could see myself as a visitor, in the same light as a hospital visitor, watching over not only distress but every ramification of human feeling, surprise, irritation, intolerance, joy, sometimes, that the door should be opened, shyness, generosity, not to mention the women, of course.

Frank’s behavior is so embarrassingly awkward that the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable to witness, as Frank draws more and more people out into the hallway and into his delusional world, and yet—and yet, there are occasional moments like this one where his calculating thoughts digress to something approaching perceptiveness… until they crumble once more under the weight of his social dysfunction topped with cluelessness.

In the Train is a short novel, yet it is anything but superficial; on the contrary, it manages to be deeply disturbing—in a productive, thought-provoking way. What’s more, it’s immensely entertaining. If you’re easily embarrassed by laughing out loud in public, I recommend staying home with this one… but by all means, read it. A little added skepticism of unusual men in train stations aside, you won’t regret it.

8 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

In the Train by Christian Oster. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. (France, Object Press)

I wrote about this novel and Object Press a few weeks back after reading In the Train in one go and being unable to contain my enthusiasm. This is a spectacular book, a perfect summer book—being short, being laugh-out-loud funny—and a great introduction to this particular French literary “movement.”

Oster has had a few books translated into English, including The Cleaning Woman and The Unforseen, all of which have a very specific style that brings to mind other French writers such as Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Eric Chevillard. The books are narrated through the eyes (and mind) of a semi-befuddled, and definitely odd, man who stumbles his way through life, trying to find love, but fucking things up thanks to his strange ideas and way of viewing the world. Broad brush strokes, I know, and there’s a lot more going on in these books than just that, but personally, I think the best of these (Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Oster’s In the Train) really work because the narrator’s observations and way of seeing the world is so wack, that it’s incredibly compelling.

Quick digression: A few years back, the amazing literary critic Warren Motte wrote a book entitled Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Fiction that traced the similarities—simple writing, repetition, symmetry, playfulness—among the works from these three writers and a host of other French authors working a similar vein. So if you’re interested in finding out more about this trend or other interesting French writers, this is definitely worth checking out. Although Motte’s an academic, his books aren’t laden with academese, and instead are very interesting and readable.

The plot of In the Train is very simple: a man goes to the train station looking for a woman to crush on. He sees a girl struggle with a heavy bag, approaches her, helps her, sits next to her on the train, has an awkward encounter, stalks her to her hotel, stalks her inside her hotel, and eventually the two have a romantic tryst.

Obviously leaving out a bunch of details here so as to not spoil everything, but the book is very nicely divided into three (unmarked) sections of about the same length: Frank meets (and basically stalks) Anne, explanation of Anne’s current romantic situation, Frank and Anne’s tryst. It’s an incredibly well-structured book, and these shifts are very effective in adding depth and complexity to a rather straightforward boy-meets-girl story.

That’s all fine and good, but as mentioned above, the most important thing here is the voice. All of the humor in this novel comes from Frank’s odd trains of thought and his self-justifications for his bizarre behavior. I marked dozens of passages in this book, and although these work a lot better in context, here are a few fun examples that hopefully illustrate Frank’s mind.

After Anne gets off the train, she tells him that she’s going to meet her sister. He follows her to a hotel, checks in, and then tries to figure out the best way to “accidentally” run into her again. Waiting in the lobby, he sees a woman who maybe possibly could be Anne’s sister—so he wanders over:

If this woman was her sister, then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I managed to exchange a few words with her. It was a roundabout way of getting in touch with Anne. Even if it was clumsy. It might well be clumsy but, precisely because of that, it would be irreversible. My connection with Anne would be established. I would have to wait and see what happened next but the connection would be there: whatever form it took, and however much embarrassment it engendered, there it would be. So I really didn’t have much reason to hesitate, particularly as she could just as easily not be her sister.

I stood up. I went over to her. Just as if she were about to faint. She wasn’t actually going faint, though. She just looked a bit withdrawn, nothing more. I cleared my throat. She looked up. I said are you alright? Are you feeling okay? Are you sure everything’s alright?

Now she did look at me. She said what the hell are you doing? And then, for the first time, I did actually wonder what the hell I was doing. Still, I answered nothing, nothing at all, I just thought, I’m sorry. It’s okay, she said, and, by the way, I’m fine, thank you, and I went and sat back down.

I hadn’t got very far. She could still be Anne’s sister. And be feeling terrible. Or great.

One other bit . . . After he checks into the hotel, he realizes that since he wasn’t planning on staying overnight, he doesn’t have any clean underwear. And if all goes according to insane plan, Anne might find out, think he’s got issues, etc. But if he leaves to buy underwear, he might miss Anne. So:

And anyway, finding underwear, in Gournon, even on a Saturday afternoon, wasn’t going to prove easy. And, if and when I did find some, I wasn’t going to rush to let Anne know, in order to reassure her about my personal hygiene and the coherence of my behavior. All of which meant that—thanks to this woman, actually—I was confronted with a serious personal hygiene problem, which I was going to have to resolve, come what may. So then. So then, never mind, I told myself, I’m going out. I’ll take the risk. After all, she could wait for me too, if she happened to want to see me again, in this hotel. It may even be better like this.

All praise to Adriana Hunter for presenting such a fluidly quirky voice. Amazing translation job. And the book is very pretty, in keeping with the simplicity of Object Press’s aesthetic.

This novel is amazingly fun, and right at the top of my recommendation list. Hopefully the panelists on this year’s Best Translated Book Award (I’m not one of them) will take a close look . . .

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

A few months back, I was contacted by the editor of Object Press, a relatively new publishing house in Toronto that was in the process of bringing out Christian Oster’s In the Train.

I’m always excited to find out about new presses doing lit in translation, especially ones with simple, effective, attractive websites (do you know how rare this is? do you? I can count the publisher websites that aren’t hideous on one hand) and an elegant cover design. I’m also a big Oster fan—mainly of The Cleaning Woman, and in part because of my intense crush on Émilie Dequenne who starred in the movie version.

Anyway, before talking more about In the Train (a full review of which will appear next week), here’s how Object Press describes itself:

Object Press was formed in 2008. We are a small, independent press that publishes fiction in slim, quality paperback editions.

While our publications might not easily fit into categories, there are certain motivations that unite the work we do. One of them is the desire to present fiction—focusing on, but not limited to, the novel—that is somehow different, expanding its potential, its horizon of possibility. One aspect of this is reflected in presenting titles of relatively short length, favoring writing that is precise, inspired and thoughtfully structured. Another important motivation for us is something we don’t hear very much of in publishing, and that is the pursuit of joy. The joy of writing, reading; of discovering a new narrative, a new voice; of holding and handling books; of seeing them on shelves, inviting them into our lives, our thoughts. These books are objects for use, objects for reflection. And these are our projects, focusing on literary innovation, good design and the pleasures of literature.

In the Train is a short novel (more like a novella, I suppose), and it is precise and well-structured. It’s also incredibly funny. I can’t remember the last time I literally laughed out loud while reading in a public place. But I spent yesterday afternoon cracking up in Java’s despite any and all odd looks . . . I’ll write more about the book later, but it’s a fantastic love story (of sorts) about a guy who goes to the train station essentially looking for someone to crush on. There he meets an odd, captivating woman and helps her with her bag . . . Things progress from there, all told through Frank’s point-of-view, which is skewed and charmingly insane in that way that contemporary French authors can portray slightly creepy old dudes as being charmingly insane. As a single man, I have to say that these sorts of odd neuroses and strange turns of thought are never as captivating to women you meet in real life . . . At least not here in Rochester. But because it’s funny, I’m totally willing to suspend my disbelief when it comes to Frank not getting slapped during his second meeting with Anne, which takes place in the hotel that he followed her into:

What about my room number? she asked. How did you get that?

I knocked on doors.

She looked worried. Or impressed, I’m not sure. She said I won’t really have time to see you.

That’s not the point, I said.

I’d sort of forgotten what was the point. But it wasn’t necessarily to see her, not for me, not now. I wanted to keep the connection, that was all. To say see you, like on the platform, that yes. I said it.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how much I love this book, but I’ll save it for the review. But seriously—check out Object Press. Very cool what they’re doing and I wish them the best of luck.

25 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Small Worlds, Warren Motte categorizes Christian Oster as a “minimalist,” placing him in a group with other young French writers such as Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Marie Redonnet, and Eric Chevillard, who “exploit the principle of formal economy in their writing.” Each does so it his/her own way, yet there is something that similar in their approach—a terseness in their writing that tends to put a greater emphasis on the mindset of the characters (especially the protagonist) than on the description of the plot, setting, etc. The Unforeseen fits squarely in this tradition, complete with all the typical charms and frustrations.

The plot of the novel is hardly worth mentioning, but here it is: an unnamed narrator is on a trip with his girlfriend, Laure, to attend a birthday party. On their way, Laure gets sick. (“It is my fault: I always have a cold, they inevitably catch it. Once they have recovered, they always leave me . . . and I am left with my own cold.”) She shacks up in a hotel to recover, and sends the narrator on his way to the birthday party. Unforeseen events ensue, such as attending someone else’s birthday party in a sick, drunken haze.

What drives this narrative though isn’t the plot points—or the quasi-surprising ending—but the way in which the narrator processes these events. Nothing is ever really thought through, and his selfish nature is both irritating (to the reader and those around him) and his main charm:

“And, anyway, I’m not waiting for anything or anyone,” she told me, “the only thing in you that holds me, the only thing with you that holds me, well, the only thing in me with you that holds me,” she clarified, “that gets me hooked, I mean, that makes me feel good, if you like, is your selfishness, and I can’t get involved with your selfishness, I don’t really have the time. I’m sorry.”

How the narrator processes events, how he thinks about the world, is the primary charm of minimalist books like this one. Unfortunately, in contrast to Toussaint’s Television or anything by Echenoz, or even Oster’s earlier book A Cleaning Woman, this novel falls flat. The narrator is like Larry David without the funny. Or a less neurotic Woody Allen.

Adriana Hunter’s translation is adequate, but there are some wonky lines that don’t do the book any favors. The translation of a book so dependent on tone and word choice needs to be almost flawless.

That said, this novel may not be a masterpiece, but it is worth checking out. It’s a nice diversion and a pleasant example of one trend in contemporary French fiction.

The Unforeseen
by Christian Oster
translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Other Press
$13.95 (pb), 257 pgs.

6 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The August 6th set of Publisher Weekly fiction reviews are now online and feature a couple of interesting books in translation.

The first is Cries in the Drizzle (which sounds like a translated title) by Yu Hua “depicts a family’s life in the Zhejiang province of Maoist China during the 1970s.” According to PW, “The narrative flits between time and space to create the landscape of Sun Guanglin’s youth [. . .] Though the fractured structure has its disjointed moments, Barr’s translation perfectly captures the ebb and flow of a community on the brink of change.”

Personally, I’m more interested in the review of Christian Oster’s The Unforeseen, the review of which ends with this intriguing statement:

The result is a love story deeply informed by Beckett (complete with the narrator acquiring a limp like that of Molloy‘s title character), where swells of feeling are tracked in sneezes as involuntary as love itself.

I thought A Cleaning Woman was an excellent book—and movie (and not just because I have a crush on the leading actress)—and can’t wait to read this new title. Good to see that someone is still publishing quirky, funny French writers. There are a slew referenced in Warren Motte’s excellent Fables of the Novel, although only a handful of the books he writes about have made it into English.

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