Two recent novels by French-speaking authors blend close psychological analysis with free-flowing lyricism to tell deceptively simple love stories. One of those books, In the Train, by Christian Oster, was released by Object Press this year. Object Press, out of Toronto, is an indie press established in 2008 and with only two titles to its name so far. But if In the Train is any indication, they are off to a promising start.
Oster’s novel is small, not quite 150 sparsely printed pages, and the story it tells is a modest one. Frank, nondescript in every aspect except his tendency to overanalyze and his habit of seeking out women on train platforms, meets Anne, a woman carrying a large bag at the Paris station. He offers to hold the bag for her and thus their romance begins. Anne is cautious at first, but Frank insinuates himself into her heart through a series of maneuvers ranging from half-gestures to outright stalking – or what would amount to stalking if we weren’t charmed by Frank’s voice and thus made to trust his motives.
I’ve not read another novel by Oster so I can’t say if this voice is his or one cleverly adopted for Frank. But whether he’s chosen the perfect character for his style or created the perfect style for his character, it’s a match. Comma-heavy, this style involves long sentences, full of clarifications, elaborations, asides, and disclaimers – many of them seemingly unnecessary; and yet they charm us while drawing us closer to Frank, and so, I think, are essential.
Here is Frank analyzing Anne’s reaction after he offers to hold her bag:
She looked tempted by my offer, although still undecided. Then she looked at me and thought that, at worst, I was interested in her, not her bag, and she handed it to me… I took the bag, thinking this woman was actually pretty relaxed, with men, unless she was doing everything possible to be left in peace, but I wasn’t sure this was the best way to go about it, with a man. But with me, I don’t know.
There are plenty of phrases here that an insensitive editor might remove, but to do so would be to miss the point. And besides, there’s enough meat in the story that we don’t get sick of this style. Not only is there Frank’s questionable behavior as he knocks on every door of the hotel to which he has followed Anne – is this gesture romantic or creepy, and more importantly, how will Anne see it? – but there is another man, a successful and interesting author who uses Anne as a plaything. When Anne first takes off her robe for Frank, in her hotel room while waiting for the author to return, we are not sure whether her behavior is the result of genuine attraction or revenge on a man who has hurt her. We go on questioning her sincerity throughout the story: even when she does succumb to Frank’s love, we can’t help but feel she’s settling.
The overly explanatory style doesn’t always suit Oster’s purposes perfectly. The bag in the aforementioned passage comes to symbolize many things – an obstacle to Frank and Anne being fully united; the weight of their separate pasts; the burden of love – but Frank makes all these meanings explicit to us, and in doing so, they lose some of the impact they might have had were we allowed to figure them out on our own.
All in all though, this is a strong novel in the European mode – if I might be allowed such a generalization. European novels tend to privilege abstraction and the explicit elaboration of thought and feeling, while American novels approach these things obliquely, through gesture, dialogue, loaded description and telling action. Both are useful and worthy methods, but it’s books like this that give rise to the lie at the heart of the worst American fiction: that we do not elaborate our feelings and thoughts to ourselves; that we are acting, not thinking, beings and that we approach our consciousnesses indirectly.
Running Away, by Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is roughly the same size and scope as In the Train. Released in 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press, it tells the story of an unnamed narrator who, on business trip to Shanghai, becomes involved with a mysterious woman named Li Qi. What follows is a whirlwind, dreamlike romance.
Like In the Train, much of this book takes place on the move – in trains, yes, but also on planes; and there is even a high-speed chase by motorcycle. As in In the Train, the romance is complicated by a third party – in this case, the narrator’s business partner, Zhang Xiangzhi, who has an ambiguous, probably romantic, relationship with Li Qi. And like In the Train, the story is told in the observant, lyrical voice of its first-person narrator. But while In the Train roots us in Frank’s head, Running Away focuses more on the physical world, providing lengthy descriptions of Shanghai, Beijing, and the Mediterranean.
At places, this book reads like the best travel writing. Here are the narrator and Li Qi after they first meet at a Shanghai art gallery:
Sound checks could be heard from the warehouse, and sharp bursts of Chinese heavy metal…filled the calm surroundings of the summer night, causing glass panes to vibrate and sending grasshoppers flying in the warmth of the air. It became difficult to hear one other on the bench and I moved closer to her…
Compare this to Frank’s meeting with Anne. In that passage, the focus is entirely on the two characters – just look at how many times the words “she” and “I” are used; and then notice how comparatively empty of pronouns the passage from Running Away is.
While it is nice to have a visceral experience of teeming China, Toussaint’s descriptive gifts often push us away when we should be drawn closer. Just as we become interested in the menacing, yet oddly passive love triangle (Zhang seems to know what’s going on between the narrator and Li Qi and yet doesn’t seem angry about it) we are dowsed in lyricism that gives a poetic lift to a situation that, psychologically, can’t support it. Where Oster uses lyricism to extract his characters’ motivations, Toussaint trains it on the outer world. And so the trio who races via motorcycle through the streets of Beijing could be anybody at all, the nice tension between them dropping away into mere action:
We turned off the freeway to escape our pursuers, braking to take an off- ramp, but the sirens kept following us, seeming to multiply in space, coming from everywhere at once, as when a number of police cars converge on the scene of an accident at high speed…
There’s a reason high-speed chases aren’t thought of as literary. Running Away does provide a deepening context to the passage: the narrator is “running away” from a previous romance; and the chase, his constant movement between countries, and his quick plunge into the arms of another woman all reflect that. However, Toussaint misses opportunities to complicate this idea, or I should say that the natural limitations of his style – its tendency toward superficial, poetic effect – prevent him from realizing these opportunities. It is when this book, yes, runs away from the very things that make it most European that it loses us, too.