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.
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