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.
by Christian Oster
translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
$13.95 (pb), 257 pgs.
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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .