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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Unforeseen

Christian Oster

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Unforeseen

Title: The Unforeseen
Author: Christian Oster
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 257 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Unforeseen - US
The Unforeseen - UK
The Unforeseen - Canada
L'imprévu - Canada
L'imprévu - France
Mein blindes Schicksal - Deutschland
  • French title: L'imprévu
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective and amusing, even as it is annoying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2007 Christine Smallwood
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 2/10/2006 Thomas Laux
The NY Sun . 17/10/2007 Benjamin Lytal
The Telegraph . 22/11/2007 Lionel Shriver

  From the Reviews:
  • "Even if this man is annoying, Osterís writing nonetheless soothes us, carrying the protagonistís neuroses pleasantly along. The novelist pokes fun at him but remains sympathetic. And when the worrying becomes tiresome, a little humor bursts through" - Christine Smallwood, Bookforum

  • "(A) cozy comedy and a tribute to Samuel Beckett's Molloy. (...) Mr. Oster tells the story of a curmudgeon adrift, seldom solving his problems but always willing to complicate them. (...) Increasingly feverish and eventually drunk, Mr. Oster's narrator grows absurd in the full, swinging, hilarious sense of the word." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "(A) quirky, charming little book that sustains itself almost entirely through voice. It makes an excellent study in how voice and its elusive constituents -- not only sound, rhythm and lexicon, but a mode of thinking, a perspective, a palpable and particular presence -- gets any novelist three quarters of the way home." - Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Unforeseen is stuck in a vicious circle. As he explains in the book's opening:

     Women only have to come in contact with me to fall ill. They catch colds, they sneeze, sometimes their throats are affected. . . . . For them, it is the first time. Their good healthy days were before my time.
     It is my fault: I always have a cold, they inevitably catch it. Once they have recovered, they always leave me . . . and I am left alone with my own cold.
       He's actually been involved with a woman, Laure, for a while now, but now she's sneezed for the first time, and it looks like a cold is setting in ..... They're on their way to Braz, to spend a few days with a friend, Philippe, and celebrate his 50th birthday. But the sneeze sidetracks them. They don't drive straight to Braz but stop to spend the night at a hotel, and Laure begins the inevitable process of distancing herself from the narrator. She insists he get another room, and then, as soon as possible, that he set off by himself.
       It doesn't sound like a relationship that was going to last anyway. The narrator even acknowledges: "She found my love disturbing", which doesn't seem like a solid basis for any relationship. Still, he finds it hard to admit to himself that they weren't meant to be, no matter how clear Laure makes it to him (and she makes it clearer and clearer).
       The narrator is more or less dazed, thinking of planning ahead but consistently unable to. He constantly acts at the spur of the moment, which doesn't help matters. He leaves the car with Laure and tries to set out for Braz, but he won't get there until it is decidedly too late; instead, he winds up at another birthday party -- and also eventually in another woman's bed. Neither adventure, however, can be said to be a success. By the time he gets to Braz he is also seriously battered, inside and out, his stumbling leading to a surprising number of falls, both literal and (like those colds) metaphorical.
       Yes, Oster's hero is a mess. A self-absorbed mess of astonishing proportions, lovingly detailed. A woman he (sort of) hooks up with tries to explain his (very limited) appeal:
"(T)he only thing in you that holds me, the only things with you that holds me, well, the only thing in me with you that holds me," she clarified, "that gets me hooked, I mean, that makes me feel good, if you like, is your selfishness, and I can't get involved with your selfishness, I don't really have the time. I'm sorry."
       Oster means to evoke a similar reaction in readers, for them to also fall for this selfishness. The protagonist's world is tiny, barely extending anywhere beyond what affects him, able to consider the world only in how it directly relates to him. It is perversely fascinating -- but also a bit tiresome. There's not much to this hapless fellow, after all. As one character points out to him -- a sentiment which readers might echo:
     "You haven't told me much," she said. "What you've mostly done is blow your nose."
       (He's kind of ambivalent about his sneezing, too: on the one hand, he says he loathes it, "On the other hand, I have also already said that it gives you something to do.")
       There's so little to him that when he is asked his name he gives a false one -- Serge -- which then sticks with him longer than he had presumably intended. When he calls Laure from the birthday party he wound up at he just pretends he's calling from the one he intended to go to: as he says apropos of something else but as is indeed applicable to almost every choice and action he takes (especially with that slight ambiguity to it): "Ah well, I said to myself. All the same. All the same."
       (The closing line of the novel suggests, however, the possibility of change, of him fully embracing his identity and being honest about it to someone: "'I'd like to know what your name is,' she said." But whether he can take that next step and answer truthfully is left open.)
       Almost everything that happens to the narrator here is unforeseen: even when all he has to do is take a few steps it seems he's as likely to trip and fall as not. He's thrown into circumstances that give him an excuse for not being in control over his destiny, and yet whenever the opportunity comes to wrest destiny back into his control he fails more or less miserably. Rare is the protagonist that seems so powerless -- and yet it's largely an abdication of power (and responsibility) on his part. Even at the very end he again finds himself in the hands of a woman who dictates to him: she will take him back to her office, she insists, and she even grabs and carries his bag for him before he has a chance to take it.
       Oster's hero (like many of his heroes) is adrift. Laure is proof (yet again ?) that loving is not enough: to be in a relationship requires a give and take that he seems incapable of. The best that he can do is smother with affection -- and infect with his disease. His failure with Laure, drifting fast away from him in the hours and few days covered in the novel, leaves him at the mercy of whatever comes. The ending suggests that it could come worse (Philippe is not quite in the condition the narrator presumably hoped to find him in when he finally gets to Braz) -- and he does seem to have at least attracted the interest of yet another woman. And in some senses his world is only a comically exaggerated version of the real one: try what we might, after all, we are by and large at the mercy of the unforeseen with regards to most of what happens in our lives, our fates constantly buffeted around by it.
       The limited perspective of this narrator, completely self-obsessed and walling himself in in the smallest of universes, brings with it the risk of some tedium. Oster fights that with his humour: his protagonist is no clown, but it's hard to keep a straight face around him and some of what he gets up to, with the reactions of those he interacts with adding to the amusing absurdity of the situations (especially since normality seems to bring out the worst in him).
       The narrator is no sympathetic hero (or anti-hero), and his antics can get enervating, but Oster has fashioned a quietly powerful tale of loss and desire in an overwhelming world, his small-scale take and unusual perspective a welcome different version of that sort of story. The protagonist is an odd duck, and The Unforeseen is an odd story, but worth a look.

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The Unforeseen: Reviews: Other books by Christian Oster under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Christian Oster was born in 1949.

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