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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 23-34

Christian Oster:
From Courtly Love to Modern Malaise
Jean-Louis Hippolyte
Rutgers University, Camden

Even a cursory glance at Christian Oster's work shows an author hard at work drafting a new lover's map. From Volley-ball (1989) to Mon grand appartement (1999), Oster aimed to redefine the landscape of desire for a postmodern and post-romantic environment. If anything, his most recent production has not deviated from this goal. Indeed, Une femme de ménage [A Maid] (2001), Dans le train [In the Train] (2002), Les rendez-vous (2003), and L'imprévu [The Unforeseen] (2005), set the stage for an even more rigorous investigation of love, its vagaries, and modus operandi.1 Of course, the type of love that Oster investigates is a far cry from the fatuous sentimentality of Hallmark cards and contemporary telenovellas. Rather, it is a love anchored in the domestic and the trivial. It is a minimal love, more concerned with the mundane inner workings of the human heart (ludus), and remarkably unconcerned with pathos (mania). It is a love tempered by stoicism; this love does not amount to indifference, but seeks freedom from passion, which, etymologically, incorporates "anguish" and "suffering."

In his most recent works, Oster has gone to great pains to expound an Ars Amatoria that, unsurprisingly, draws from a familiar historical model: courtly love. Eros has always played a crucial part in Oster's fiction, but even more so in his current output. In his last novels, we encounter the same amiable losers, always looking for love, drifting between the loss of a former lover and the desire for a new one. Mihaela Voicu has argued that in Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot —and by extension, in all courtly love narratives—the hero is "driven by a single thought, and that… all his acts are subordinated to his amorous contemplation."2 Love, then, becomes the hero's idée fixe; it is all he thinks and seemingly cares about. And yet, that love cannot be consummated, lest the noble lover dishonor the object of his amorous longing, and himself in the process; one could argue that courtly love narratives cease to embody fine amor once love passes from desire to attainment.

Thus it is incompleteness and lack that remain the mainstays of courtly love romances. In Lancelot, the eponymous hero conceives a passion for Queen Guenevere, though she is married to King Arthur and, in other [End Page 23] versions of the tale, is older than he. But, though forbidden, this love remains an affirmative force, inspiring Lancelot to rescue Guenevere and other members of Arthur's court from danger. Ultimately what matters is less the (near-) betrayal of sacred vows than the sacrifice of the knight for his lady—his unfulfilled longing. That sacrifice anchors the hero's identity in the selflessness of the act, as when Lancelot ultimately restores Guenevere to Arthur.

Oster's protagonists are driven by the same single-minded pursuit of love, but unlike their courtly romance counterparts, their identities are not anchored or predictable. Oster's lovelorn characters are men of no particular qualities or social standing, though they are not financially needy. They are neither physically remarkable ("of average build" DLT 7), nor unpleasant. By their own account, they are "within norms" (FM 19). They seldom mention their professional activities, and only then to fill a dead space in a conversation and to throw the listener some scrap of information—not intended to illuminate, but simply perhaps to make themselves slightly more plausible.

If Oster's protagonists do go to work, the nature of their work remains unspecified. At most, we are told that they occupy middle positions in companies, but the latter are never more than acronyms. These men seldom exhibit much interest in their careers. We learn that Jacques, the narrator of Une Femme de ménage, works for the SMEREP, but little else.3 Likewise we know that Frank, in Dans le train, labors in the "service industries," where he...


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