April 2010

Liz Fischer

fiction

In the Train by Christian Oster, translated by Adriana Hunter

I didn’t know the French were neurotic. I’m well acquainted with some, visit France occasionally, and never caught on to this aspect of the culture. But Christian Oster, the Parisian author of In the Train, would know better, and his characters are clearly afflicted.

The premise of this slim book, Oster’s fourth to be published in English, is inviting: strangers falling in love on a train, a story told through conversation, balanced precariously on the brink between perception and reality. And at times it is charming. Oster has a fluid, natural voice, and a deft way of exposing his characters vulnerabilities and self-consciousness. For the whole of the novel we are in the hands of Frank, an average working man from Paris, a bit of a schlep, who is preoccupied with finding love, or at least finding a woman.

At the beginning of the story Frank has arrived to the train station in Paris alone, but quickly becomes entranced. His objet d’amour on this particular weekend is the bookish, slightly awkward, imperfectly beautiful Anne, who he first spots struggling with her heavy luggage on the platform. And the story is off, carried by Frank’s insights, observations, and tendency to over analyze, and by Oster’s subtle humor. “And besides, she was pretty,” Frank says of Anne, “well, pretty enough, for me, I mean, I can’t claim that any other random man would have been interested in her, I don’t have that sort of ambition.” The quotation marks, I should add, are mine. The book notably omits them, and while it does cause the reader to stop occasionally to identify the speaker, it also aids the immersion into Frank’s thoughts and neurosis -- which I will elaborate on… now.

If the situation of a chance encounter on a long train ride seems romantic, it is only pages before that notion is quashed by an unexpected condition. Before they’ve even boarded the train Frank reveals (to us, not Anne) that he went to the station explicitly to watch women, “Women carried things when they left the place, with clothes and even underwear in their bags, it was completely different, and they were heading somewhere, they really were heading somewhere.” Yes, that is typically why we go to the train station.

Insufficiently satisfied with merely watching all of this leaving, Frank buys a ticket to Rouen in order to meet a woman and travel with her. He has no business in Rouen, he says, “But no one was expecting me in Paris, either, on that Saturday, and I had time on my hands.” Oster manages to present this like a harmless, quirky, weekend diversion, but I suspect many female readers will be subconsciously tapping their purses to confirm the presence of pepper spray, or a sharp set of keys. As Frank proceeds to board the train and take a seat next to Anne, despite her standoffishness, it becomes difficult to follow their stilted conversation and his meandering thoughts because all of that is drowned out by a concerned voice in my head shouting, “Get away from that creep! Get off the fucking train!”

For her part, however, Anne has an equally unusual personality. She is physically awkward but apparently has a wonderful body, dresses like a schoolmarm, and is, in turns, withdrawn and shockingly direct. She is sexual, but not intimate, and she is a reader, but seems none the wiser for it. Oster’s accomplishment is keeping us interested in the complicated, evolving relationship between these two duds. In the Train is a quick read, driven more by curiosity than empathy. But at times that seems just as well. So the circumstances are not romantic, so our lovers are odd and socially inept and sometimes off-putting… if it’s intentional (and how could it be anything but?), then it’s a worthwhile exploration into misfit hearts.

Most redeeming is the style of narration, the complete access to Frank’s mind, his desires, inclinations and considerations. Necessitated by the suspension of time (the story takes place over about twenty-four hours) the book is dominated not by action but by thought. And while that path can get wearing: “It was as long as the one on the train, her skirt. I don’t mean I took a picture of the skirt she was wearing on the train, of course, far from it, her skirt wasn’t what I noticed, but anyway, this one was as long as the one she was wearing on train, this new one…”; it is more often natural, and refreshing. After following Anne off the train in Gournon, he describes the city only on his second excursion around town, this time in Anne’s company, “I started noticing aspects of the place, with her,” he notes. Entering his hotel alone again later, his concerns are comfortingly human, “The receptionist watched me leave, and come back, I thought at least she would think I was active.”

In this compact work Oster has fleshed out an odd, sometimes touching, sometimes grating love story. The couple is offbeat, to say the least, but their experience of a new relationship, with its excitements and uncertainties, is relatable. While Oster allows Frank and Anne some dark flaws, their most admirable trait is both shared and constant; they are willing to go along for the ride. 

In the Train by Christian Oster, translated by Adriana Hunter
Object Press
ISBN: 0981074014
160 pages