Samuel Beckett—the droll French novelist? Hardly. But it's easy to forget that he was a novelist writing in French, and that his legacy in French has been broader, if not deeper, than it has been among English-language writers. Witness Christian Oster's new novel, "The Unforeseen" (Other Press, 264 pages, $12.95), a cozy comedy and a tribute to Samuel Beckett's "Molloy" (1951). Mr. Oster's previous novel, "A Cleaning Woman," was filmed by Claude Berri, the director of other export-friendly hits like "Jean de Florette" (1986), and it's perhaps not a stretch to say that in his mix of high-art sources and middlebrow tone, Mr. Oster represents a uniquely European entertainment.
Is Beckett funny? Putting aside the controversial designation "Theater of the Absurd," we can still appreciate the misery of Beckett's bedraggled narrators, their matter-of-fact perplexity, and Beckett's own graceful timing. He was skeptical of the most basic physical acts, and his skepticism, confirmed by his reading of philosophers like fellow Irishman George Berkeley, put Beckett on a road that might have led a lesser writer to a literature of stunning pratfalls and neurotic quibbling. But Beckett kept his characters in a very tight focus, seldom admitting the questions of social dignity that invite outright comedy.
That Mr. Oster does go farther tarnishes neither him nor Beckett, of course. Fifty years have passed and Beckett's manner has been thoroughly digested by writers like Mr. Oster. So, how does his legacy manifest itself?
"The Unforeseen" tells the first-person story of an unnamed man with a perpetual cold, which his girlfriends invariably catch. "Once they have recovered, they always leave me ... and I am left with my own cold." The narrator sets off on a road trip to the island of Braz with his current girlfriend, Laure, who after a year of cohabitation is finally coming down with something. He offers her a Kleenex, taken from one of the three packets distributed among his pockets — like the stone-sucking Molloy, this narrator is a tinkerer, a man of eccentric preparations who never guesses how much he entertains us.
What happens next? Beckett's heroes keep their eyes on the ground, attending to the bare necessities and their own obsessive routines — they drift from day to day, unsure what point there would be in doing more. Similarly Mr. Oster tells the story of a curmudgeon adrift, seldom solving his problems but always willing to complicate them.
When Laure comes down with a fever, and asks him to leave her in a hotel room, he agrees. When the hotelier suggests that he hitchhike, rather than pay for a cab, he agrees. And when the motorist who picks him up, a friendly man named Gilles, invites him into his home, where birthday preparations are underway, the narrator decides to stay for the party. Sent to pick up Gilles's cake, the narrator gets lost in his own mechanistic observations of the bakers' actions. Asked what he would like, he mentally replies: "To have a clearer idea of what was going on!"
Increasingly feverish and eventually drunk, Mr. Oster's narrator grows absurd in the full, swinging, hilarious sense of the word. At the party, his incapacitated observations lend him an ironic, impish wit. He farcically presents Gilles with the gift intended for Laure's friend, the man they were going to visit on Braz. Another guest, Florence, offers him a ride to Braz, and he grumpily accepts, only to trip on a rug and pull her down with him.
Having pinched a nerve, the narrator can barely walk, and now really becomes Beckett's Molloy, whose "sick leg" or "stiff leg" is the focus of repeated acrobatics, as Molloy mounts and dismounts his bicycle. Mr. Oster's narrator suffers similar contortions in the car on the road to Braz. His bluff self-interest in his own decaying situation precludes any decision about the trip itself, which, without Laure, makes no sense. Finally, in the water taxi to Braz, Mr. Oster evokes Beckett's favorite philosopher, Geulincx, who likened free will to the action of a man walking the deck of a moving boat: Mr. Oster's narrator huffily straggles his way from stern to bow, trying to get a perspective on things, only to find the boat has already reached the opposite shore.
* * *
Another perspective on Beckett's legacy in France comes from Pascale Casanova, author of the acclaimed book "The World Republic of Letters." That book, translated in 2004, analyzed world literature as an economy of prestige, asserting that even writers like Kafka or Beckett wrote in the context of national literatures. Now her first book, "Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution" (Verso, 119 pages, $23.95) has finally been translated, and the essay bolsters that case. She explains Beckett's anxieties of influence vis-ŕ-vis Yeats and Joyce, and pins his aesthetic breakthrough to his contact with abstract painters.
This is in opposition to the famous French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Ms. Casanova accuses Blanchot of carelessly annexing Beckett, reducing him "to the passive, archaic function of inspired mediator, charged with ‘unveiling being.'" Blanchot made Beckett into a prophet, speaking in a vacuum. Whether Blanchot's hierophantic gloss was as fatally influential in France as Ms. Casanova believes — and Mr. Oster's warm comic appreciation of Beckett would suggest otherwise — there is always room for criticism like Ms. Casanova's. With one eye on a close-reading of Beckett's texts and another, realistically, on his social context, she addresses the fundamental question of criticism: why an oeuvre exists.