An interview with Christian Oster
At the end of 2009, just prior to the publication of In the Train, Richard di Santo of Object Press interviewed Christian Oster about his novel, writing style and literary interests.
Let’s begin by talking about In the Train. It’s been almost eight years since this novel was first published in France. How do you remember it now? Do you remember the state of mind you were in when you started writing? What place does it have now, in your work as a whole?
For me, this novel corresponds to the culmination of an evolution, a conscious evolution which I had initiated two or three years earlier, that was taking me from the concealment of affect by means of distance and humor—characteristics of my first novels—to the revealing of affect. That being said, I remember that the first chapter of In the Train was actually written in a train, in Germany, and that humor, it seems to me, was still present. After writing In the Train, I didn’t want to go any further in this revealing or ‘bringing to light’ of affect, and I somehow retraced my steps, reconnecting with distance and humor, but probably mixing in more simplicity and emotion than before. At least, this is the idea I have of it. Since then, I have also tried not to give quite so much prominence to the amorous encounter.
From the first page to very nearly the last, anxiety is all over this novel. And many of your other works as well. A particular kind of psychological tension. Even your books for children (the first example that comes to mind is La Sonnette du Lapin (The Rabbit’s Doorbell), about a rabbit who is worried that his neighbors don’t like him) pick up on this thread of anxious characters. What is it about anxiety—in particular social and romantic anxiety—that fascinates you?
I’m not sure about anxiety by itself, but I am always concerned with suspense. And when it comes to tension, it is the same concern. After all, what would a novel be without it? Regarding my children’s tales, I think I manage to make people smile better than I frighten them. But when I do manage to frighten, I am happy—and I think that both dimensions coexist, indeed, in La Sonnette du Lapin.
Speaking of making people smile, humor seems integral to your novels. I find myself laughing a lot with your work, a compassionate sort of laughter that affectionately accompanies your protagonists. What role does humor play for you as a writer? Why is it important? Does humor have anything to hide?
Humor, for me as well as others, is the politeness of literature. You mention, rightly, that it ‘affectionately’ accompanies my protagonists. Indeed, I don’t wish to direct it against anyone, or to target anyone—I don’t like irony very much. It is preferable, I think, to love and respect one’s characters. As to what humor has to hide, it has to be the anguish of death, evidently. What else?
Frank, the protagonist of In the Train, is very endearing. Some of my women friends even admitted to being a little seduced by him. They enjoyed discovering this man through his anxieties, his anguish, his peculiarities, his trains of thought. They found him to be calm in some sense, and somewhat reassuring. Does this surprise you? And are you flattered?
I'm not sure. I haven’t read In the Train again since it was first published. My character probably has a reassuring side to him, but that’s not his only side. If I am flattered, it is inasmuch as my character seduces—at least some people. It is, at least a little bit, the goal of any writer, I think.
Is there a particular theoretical position that informs your treatment of narrative structure, plot or character?
I paid a lot of attention to narrative structures in my first novels. Less so today. Most of all I try to tell a story that holds water. L’Aventure, Le Pont d’Arcueil and Paul au Téléphone are novels that are all very constructed, each with its own subtext. Geography in the first, architecture in the second, and meteorology in the third, notably, act as frameworks. Micro-events in Le Pont d’Arcueil, for example, suggest a suffering that the narrator tries to hide by ‘evading the issue.’ But no imported theories, at least not consciously.
Are there specific writers or literary traditions with which you see yourself aligned?
Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean Echenoz, a tiny bit Robbe-Grillet, and all the others...
I have read (in a little text called “A propos de Christian Oster”) that the discovery of Cherokee by Jean Echenoz was a ‘shock’ for you. I’m not sure if this was your word or the journalist’s, but in what way was it a shocking discovery? Does this novel have a special significance for you?
In Cherokee, Echenoz seemed to be revealing new narrative possibilities, between distance, precision and humor. But Manchette had already done so too, at the time.
Are you still writing detective novels? What originally attracted you to this genre, and what inspired you to move away from it? Have you ever considered writing in another literary genre, science fiction, for example?
I don’t write detective novels any more. Manchette and a few others—Paul Clément, notably—had encouraged me to do so. I stopped, opting for more freedom, and more ‘truth,’ but also because by writing detective novels I had the ambition to write literature, but no one seemed to notice. Furthermore, I did write science fiction in the past, published in the form of novellas. It was socio-political science fiction, witnessing an era—the 1970s—when science, for me as for some others, was prevailing over literature a little. It was also maybe simply because I hadn’t yet found my voice. That being said, I never quite ventured to write science fiction novels because this genre seems saturated by meaning, which I feel would prevent me from working on the form in a manner that would be sufficiently refined.
Are you an avid reader? When you open a book and begin reading, what do you look for? What makes a good novel, for you?
I am a slow reader. I haven’t read very much. But that being said, I expect of a novel that it provides me with a jubilation. I also have regressive readings—Jules Verne, for example. And Queneau is the classic example of a novelist who surprises, destabilizes even, but who also, with a tiny little delay (a few seconds or less while reading) wins the reader over and creates this jubilation.
[Translation: Emmanuelle Dauplay]
Except where stated, all material copyright © Object Press, 2010.