Christian Oster

"The Unforeseen"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 7, 2007)

"I had not chosen anything… Nothing at all.  I was there [at the party] by chance, if you want to call it chance that sometimes propels our lives when they run away with us, in which case chance would be, at worst, a sort of letting go…I fail to see how I could have taken any initiative in the situation, particularly as no one was expecting anything of me and, to be honest, I did not need anything either."

The Unforeseen by Christian Oster

In this strange account by an unnamed narrator of his weekend in the French countryside, Prix Medicis-winning author Christian Oster explores the nature of selfhood and the amount of control we choose to assume, or not to assume, for the outcome of our lives.  Here Oster's narrator is a self-obsessed and selfish master of inaction, a man who lives completely in his own world, a world so small that he is the only person who inhabits it. 
Accompanied by his lover Laure, the narrator is going to the fiftieth birthday party of Philippe, a friend who lives on an island off the coast of France.  Always suffering from a cold (something sure to cause people to avoid close contact with him),  the narrator has, in Laure a lover who has been immune to his illnesses—until, on this trip, she catches a terrible cold, takes to bed in a local hotel, and asks him to sleep in another room.  Later she announces that she will not go to the party, insisting that he go—and that he leave the car for her.
 
Within this simple, almost plotless framework, Oster examines the life of a man who must take some action—or allow it to happen to him.  As he obsesses over Laure's behavior in relation to him, which is the only aspect of their failing relationship that matters to him, he agrees to go to Philippe's party alone.  Having no car, he is not sure how he will accomplish this.  "I had not been getting much news about myself for a long time, except from Laure who had been passing news on to me up till now, keeping me informed about what I was, giving me useful indicators about how to move forward…"  Eventually, he decides to take his chances and hitchhike.

As fortune dictates, he is picked up by Gilles Traverse (whose last name signifies his role in relation to the speaker).  Gilles drives him toward his destination, but then, unexpectedly, invites him to spend the night at his home, where Gilles and his wife Helene will be giving Gilles' thirty-fifth birthday party. The speaker accepts, meeting Gilles' guests, though his cold has become worse and he has a fever, which does nothing to improve his interest in the outside world.  When asked his name, he cannot be bothered to tell the guests, choosing instead to give the name of a friend.  

When the speaker, having outstayed his welcome at the party, continues on his way toward Philippe's estate, driven by a woman he has just met, he tells us that "I needed to feel as if something was happening…to arrange for something to happen, while not really having anything to do with it, not making any decisions, it was out of the question that I should make even the smallest decision."  A buffoon, he becomes the victim of accidents and surprises against which he cannot defend himself.  His disasters are deserved, a game played by the fates on someone who has failed to pay attention—someone who has not lived his life, thought beyond himself, or learned to think ahead at all.

Filled with ironies and some dark humor, the novel is a challenge.  The author's ability to create wry scenes and lively peripheral characters keep the reader going, while at the same time, the main character is so inactive that there is nothing for the reader to like or to identify with.  The speaker's lack of engagement with the outside world makes him terminally dull, and one has no particular wish for either his success or his failure.  Author Christian Oster, who has examine these themes in previous novels, gives us an existential novel of a man who floats through life, tethered to the world only by his ego, a man others meet in their own travels and then pass without a backward glance.  Whether he is capable of change, an idea raised by the conclusion, is an open question for each reader to decide. (Translated by Adriana Hunter.)

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

  • Volley-Bal (1989)
  • L'aventure (1993)
  • Le pont d'Arcueil (1994)
  • Paul au téléphone (1996)
  • Le pique-nique (1997)
  • Loin d'Odile (1998)
  • My Big Apartment (1999; 2002 in U.S.)
  • A Cleaning Woman (2001; 2003 in US)
  • Dans le train, 2002
  • Les rendez-vous, 2003
  • The Unforeseen (2005; October 2007)
  • Sur la dune, 2007

Movies from Books:

  • A Cleaning Woman

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Christian OsterChristian Oster is a French novelist who studied French literature at La Sorbonne and Jussieu in Paris. He became a copy editor, and began his career as a writer by publishing several thrillers. In 1989, Volley-Ball, his first novel, was released by Les Editions de Minuit. Ten years later, Mon Grand Appartement ("My Big Apartment") won the Medicis Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France. In the last two decades, he has published twelve novels as well as numerous stories, poems, and essays in French reviews.

Oster lives in Paris, France.

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