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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



My Big Apartment

by
Christian Oster


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

To purchase My Big Apartment



Title: My Big Apartment
Author: Christian Oster
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 160 pages
Original in: French
Availability: My Big Apartment - US
My Big Apartment - UK
My Big Apartment - Canada
Mon grand appartement - France
Meine große Wohnung - Deutschland
  • French title: Mon grand appartement
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jordan Stump
  • My Big Apartment was awarded the 1999 Prix Médicis
  • In his review in the Times Literary Supplement (26/3/2004) Shaun Whiteside notes: "One puzzle is that towards the end of the book the translator, perhaps with the author's blessing, has excised a hefty chunk of dialogue in which Gavarine quizzes Flore about his place in her child's life. Her replies are crucial, and without them, an already enigmatic novel becomes simply mystifying."

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Our Assessment:

B+ : quirky but ultimately winning tale

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 2/12/1999 Thierry Gandillot
FAZ . 19/7/2001 Martin Ebel
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/3/2003 Tobin Harshaw
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2003 Joseph Dewey
TLS . 26/3/2004 Shaun Whiteside
World Literature Today . Summer/2000 Bettina L. Knapp


  Review Consensus:

  Bemused

  From the Reviews:
  • "L'histoire de Mon grand appartement tient sur un Post-it. (...) La digression (...) est un art. Fait-elle un roman ? C'est la question que pose le livre de Christian Oster. Encore qu'on se demande souvent quel chemin emprunte l'auteur. Les motivations de ses personnages restent un mystère. Ils se trouvent, se perdent, se croisent, se laissent, se manquent, s'attachent. Le hasard, l'instinct règnent en maître." - Thierry Gandillot, L'Express

  • "Doch nun läßt er sich treiben, und erst einmal treibt er auf der Prosa Christian Osters dahin. Das ist eine Anknüpfungs- und Fortspinnungsprosa, die sich über Wortverwandtschaften und Nebenbedeutungen vorantastet, die sich aber auch mit aufwendigen syntaktischen Befestigungen gegen das drohende Chaos wappnet. Es ist ein Mauerwerk, gekrönt von den Wehrtürmchen des "Subjonctif II", einer heute preziös klingenden Verbform, die aber jedem Franzosen von der Schule her noch vertraut ist -- und natürlich von den Klassikern." - Martin Ebel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Oster is a man who delights in the ambiguities of language, and I think he'd agree that My Big Apartment can be read as a 155-page riff on resignation, in every sense of the world. (...) Gavarine is a particular case: he has elevated self-resignation to a sort of apathetic narcissism. Although his realm of reference is parochial, its implications are transcendental. He has created a pre-Copernican metaphysics in which the universe revolves around his very insignificance." - Tobin Harshaw, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Stump's translation faithfully captures the twists and switchback turns of Gavarine's monolgues, the mulling, the endless unpicking of non-events, the sudden, wrongfooting shifts of focus. Traces of Beckett, Queneau, even Proust, gleam through, but the humour of the original, always a faint presence, is fainter still in the translated version." - Shaun Whiteside, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Both hurt and hopeful, his narrators, who speak in unaffected directness rendered perfectly by these translations, move about a thin sort of everyday world, certain that love at first sight is viable, that the heart cannot err, that the rich and cutting disappointment of love is the sole reward for living." - Joseph Dewey, Review of Contemporary Fiction

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:

       My Big Apartment is narrated by Gavarine (or, as the reader only learns much later: "Luc, but that doesn't really matter, they usually call me Gavarine"). He apparently has a big apartment, but the book begins with him losing the keys to it, leaving him unable to return to it. This bothers him less than one might expect; in fact, at first, he's more upset about losing the briefcase in which he kept the keys.
       In any case: losing keys normally isn't that much of a problem. One can always summon a locksmith (though he doesn't). And he has a girlfriend living with him, who can let him in when she gets home. Except that it becomes clear that he's lost her too.
       In fact, Gavarine has lost a lot at the beginning of the novel: beside the girlfriend and the briefcase (and the keys therein), it also turns out he lost his job a few days earlier. He's philosophical and near-stoic:

Disaster is nothing new to me. I know all about disaster. What I don't know, on the other hand, in my unhappiness, what I'd really like to experience, once and for all, is hell. But, I must admit, if hell is my goal, I still have a long way to go.
       Needless to say, he ends up going quite a long way -- and winds up in, of all places, an underground cave. It's a nice touch, that, and in a nicer one the cave and environs turn out to be no more hellish than normal everyday reality (something Gavarine admittedly has difficulty with), for once more suited to him.
       Gavarine takes things as they come, and so far it hasn't served him well:
    I drew no conclusions. In all my life, I'd never known a trustworthy conclusion. Things happen, one after another, that's all.
       That's certainly the case in My Big Apartment -- though it takes an unusual character to proceed in this manner. Still: the results are interesting, and, here, ultimately touching. Gavarine doesn't try to return to the apartment he's locked himself out of (and the life he has locked himself out of) and spends the night in a hotel instead. He arranges to meet a friend -- at a swimming pool, of all places -- but ignores her, finding himself falling head over heels in love with a pregnant woman.
       Gavarine is an unlikely suitor, but (as it turns out -- and not that he much cares either way) the woman, Flore, has also been abandoned, by the father of her child, and she's somehow taken by him too. She tells him that she's leaving the city the next day, and what train she'll be on, and he, of course, follows. He's an odd, hopeless romantic, and Oster does a great job of describing his mixed up feelings and hopes and despair:
She touched my arm, returned to her seat. I could have ripped my arm off. You don't need two arms. One good arm, fine, and the other one, the one she'd just just touched, in formaldehyde. On the mantelpiece. In my big apartment. When she leaves me.
       But the train takes him ever farther from that big apartment. They go to her brother's, and immediately to the hospital from the train station, Gavarine thrust into the role of expectant father standing in the delivery room before he even has much of a chance to get to know her.
       Oster doesn't offer a fairy-tale romance, as reality does complicate Gavarine's wished-for idyll. Things continue to happen, "one after another", but for once he seems to have stumbled into a situation in which he can be more at ease, comfortable, and happy. Losing his keys turns out to be the best thing that could have ever happened to him.

       Oster's book is deceptively simple. Behind the seemingly aimless advance (things happening "one after another"), there is a careful design. The book opens with Gavarine losing his keys, and closes with him holding onto a different set. From briefcases to babies to the hell-cave and, of course, the unseen site of his misery, his big apartment, Oster uses the many objects and ideas in the novel very well.
       Gavarine is also a very odd narrator, as he allows things to come as they may. He describes carefully, focussing on whatever observations impress him at the moment (a page on drying one's feet -- "The feet are quite probably the least easily dried of all body parts", etc.). He tries to explain the difficulties of communication and expression, and effectively conveys the isolation of the individual, regardless of circumstances.
       Some of the writing -- and Gavarine's attitude towards life -- can, initially, be grating, but the story, even as it grows more absurd, becomes more engaging, touching, and compelling. A curious but ultimately successful work.

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Links:

My Big Apartment: 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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© 2004-2010 the complete review

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