"Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society's expectations of what a concierge should be." -- BACK COVER.
At our meeting of the book club today the merits of The Elegance of the Hedgehog split the opinions of all of us who were there. Most people liked it, some liked it a lot and thought it was the best novel they had read in ages. Comments like "It really spoke to me" and "it is a novel I will treasure and go back to again and again" were bandied about. Me, I just felt sorry for Colombe, but let me explain.
The novel is convincingly set in in present day Paris and features the denizens of an up market apartment block. The novel is presented in a first person narrative style by two of these inhabitants. Renee is the concierge who works hard at hiding her intelligence behind the gruff exterior and no-nonsense approach typical of a 50 year old women in her profession and Paloma is a 12 year old super intelligent daughter of one of the rich residents who takes cover behind an intensely introverted persona. Renee and Paloma are both disillusioned by, as they see it the crass valueless life styles of the people around them.
Barbery uses the thoughts of these two females to satirise the lives of the nouveau rich in Paris and she tilts at some familiar targets; consumerism, hypocrisy, class-ism, academia, psychoanalysis and false values. Her aim is true and she hits the mark eloquently enough, but at the expense of her novel. She interjects mainly through Paloma, but sometimes directly with short philosophical essays exploring such ideas as; the meaning of life, the beauty in art and the movement of the world. She gets back to her novel with the introduction of M. Kakuro; a Japanese gentlemen who moves into one of the apartments and has the role of recognising the humanity in both Renee and Paloma and bringing them out of their shells. A love story develops.
Muriel Barbery's prose is beautiful, her little stories are funny and her philosophical insights can be thought provoking................Hold on a minute. I am not supposed to be liking this book and in the end I don't. Having two female characters present to the world such a miserable face does not endear them to anyone. Paloma is one of a seemingly endless line of precocious children who is made out to be some sort of guru for the world's ills. She is in fact insufferable. She has not a good word to say about any of her family particularly her older sister Colombe, who comes in for a real pasting and her only crime is that she is an intelligent young lady who goes to a good school and is negotiating her teenage years to the best of her ability. I think Colombe is a saint for putting up with one of the most annoying 12 year olds in literature. Renee is hardly any better as she chooses to be rude and dismissive to most of the residents for whom she works and then wonders why people don't give her the time of day. Then along comes M Kakuro the knight in shinning armour who sees beyond the exteriors of both Paloma and Renee and charms them into submission .............Oh Pe lease
Well that's the annoying bit out of the way, but what made me think this was not a great book was the way it was structured. Muriel Barbery is a teacher of philosophy and in this her second book she seems to vacillate between telling a story and presenting some philosophical insights on modern day living. To my mind she fails to combine the two in any meaningful way and her book becomes little more than a series of vignettes.
The book has its moments, but they are only moments and in the end it does not have the courage of its own convictions. Perhaps there is a great novel in Muriel Barbery, but in my opinion she has not written it here. A three star read.
I felt like there were two works interleaved with each other.
The first was the story of two of the residents of #7 Rue de Grenelle in Paris. We are introduced to Renée Michel, deliberately striving to hide behind the stereotype of a Parisian concierge and conceal her intelligence, her love for Tolstoy, Mozart and the Dutch Masters. We also meet Paloma Josse, a rich, precocious pre-teen whose skewering observations on her social class lead her to a decision to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday rather than become what she despises. This story is darkly humorous, full of rich and absurd commentary on privilege, popular culture and pretension. It starts a bit slowly but I quickly found myself becoming invested in these two...despite their faults and minor hypocrisies...and impatient to have their stories re-enter the book.
The second is a platform for the author to wax philosophical on the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Through the first few of these interludes, I would simply grin and bear it. By the time I was three quarters of the way through the book, I found them simply mind-numbing. They exuded that faux-profoundness of a group of college undergraduates and absolutely destroyed the pace of a story I was really enjoying.
The ending. I can envision a lively group discussion about the ending. I won't say what it was, of course, though that makes it very hard to discuss. In my opinion, it didn't work. Perhaps it resonates with some particular European sensibility but, despite being (perhaps!) consistent with some of the philosophy expressed by Renée, it was simply too...I'm not sure of the word, perhaps "artificial"?...for my taste.
In the end, I don't think this book lives up to the standard it, itself, sets for books (when you get to the part about plums, you'll know what I mean). I'd like to do a William Goldman on it and create The Elegance of the Hedgehog: The Good Parts Version.
Enjoyed, but definitely not my favorite Europa Editions creation.
The story is told in the first person by Renee and Paloma, the latter having decided to commit suicide at thirteen because she sees no point to life, but in the time intervening, she commits her thoughts to paper in a series of Profound Thoughts, and Journal of the Movement of the World. As she describes the latter, “…I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal…will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even—if there’s really nothing to say—things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options: if I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all.”
Barbery, through both Renee and Paloma, savages the shallow materialism, the shallow intellectualism, and the social blindness and snobbishness of the elites, as well as phenomenology, bad grammar, the pretentiousness of French cuisine, and psychoanalysis.
On the plus side, Barbery asks, “What is the purpose of Art? To give us the brief, dazzling illusion of the camellia, carving from time an emotional aperture that cannot be reduced to animal logic. How is Art born? It is begotten in the mind’s ability to sculpt the sensorial domain. What does Art do for us? It gives shape to our emotions, makes them visible and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them, a seal representing all those works that, by means of a particular form, have incarnated the universal nature of human emotions”. For Barbery, the true meaning of Art is in its depiction of the eternal in the particular (“The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life”) and in ephemerality of life: “…have our civilizations become so destitute that we can only live in our fear of want? Can we only enjoy our possessions or our senses when we are certain that we shall always be able to enjoy them? Perhaps the Japanese have learned that you can only savor a pleasure when you know it is ephemeral and unique; armed with this knowledge, they are yet able to weave their lives“. She also considers what is particular in how art represents life: “When movement has been banished from a nature that seeks its continuity, when it becomes renegade and remarkable by virtue of its very discontinuity, it attains the level of esthetic creation. Because art is life, playing to other rhythms”. Paloma picks up this theme in her writings: “…beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death….does this mean how we must live our lives? Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance? Maybe that’s what being alive is all about: so we can track down those moments that are dying”.
For all her learning and perceptions of life and art and beauty, Renee is limited because she hides her true nature and for all her criticisms of false social barriers, she is susceptible to them too in her own insecurity. She has a wonderful woman friend whom she loves, but she is not a soul-mate, nor was her husband, for all that he was a good and loving man. It is only in Ozu that Renee finds her soul-mate, someone who immediately sees her for the person she is in her own skin, who shares her thoughts and views on life and art, and who helps to overcome her almost ingrained belief that there is too large a gap between their stations in life by telling her that “we can be anything we want” because, to him, there are no stations, only people relating to, and understanding, and loving each other.
The title is intriguing: why a hedgehog? Paloma cogitates upon this in the only reference in the book: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.
Of course, the most famous literary reference to hedgehogs comes from Isaiah Berlin’s essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, which found its inspiration in the quote from the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'.
Berlin wrote: “Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”
At the risk of stretching things, I would say that Renee was a hedgehog in the sense that Art (as understood in its various forms)is the central vision around which she organizes her thoughts on life and what is truly important in it.
This is a book that deserves reflection and re-reading.
This seems to be kind of a love-it-or-hate it book, and I was very curious to see which side I would end up on, but I think the answer is neither. Or maybe both. I don't know. It's hard to know what I think about this book. I started out feeling that the philosophical stuff was mildly interesting, even (or perhaps especially) when I wanted to argue with it, and that the writing had a certain odd charm, but absolutely hating the characters. They struck me as cowardly, wallowing in their own intellectual superiority while lacking the courage to do anything but rigidly conform to what they believe others expect of them. Worse, they both have that particular kind of arrogant intellectual attitude that assumes that everyone but them is a blind, shallow sheep of a human being walking uselessly through life with closed eyes and a brain full of nothing but meaningless banalities. Which, I am ashamed to admit, reminds me a bit of myself when I was, oh, about the age of the kid in this story. Eventually, though, I came to understand how ugly that attitude was, how lacking in any kind of perspective or empathy.... And, of course, the character flaws we've overcome in ourselves are often the ones we find least tolerable in other people. So, yeah, I hated these characters. At first. Near the end, though, I found myself warming to them quite a bit, as they began to change slowly under the influence of the new tenant, Monsieur Ozu, a man quite capable of being intelligent without being arrogant and sophisticated without being pretentious, a man who genuinely does not care what French society might think of him or his choice of friends. And I started to feel reassured by the idea that the author didn't exactly disagree with me about the two main characters and their flaws, that she was doing something much more interesting than using them as mouthpieces for her own ideas, and I began to think, you know, maybe this is a pretty good book after all. Maybe I'm starting to really feel something for these people. Maybe I like where this is going.... And then the incredibly cheap-feeling ending came along and annoyed the crap out of me.
So, yeah. I can say that I found this an interesting enough reading experience that I don't regret spending the time on it, but as to whether I liked it or not... Meh.
This book is about the power of beauty to make life worthwhile and the power of art to illuminate beauty. The story is told in two voices: Renee, the 54 year old concierge of an elegant hotel in Paris; and Paloma a 12 year old girl living with her family in their 5th floor apartment of that building. Renee and Paloma share and treasure an intelligence that sets them apart from others. Renee is a plain looking woman who was born into a poor family. They were poor in both financial and emotional terms, they always had enough to eat but no prospects of a good life, and they never talked to each other. Renee's intelligence allowed her to get a good basic education, she married young, at 17, and she and her husband worked hard all their lives. Before the story begins Renee's husband has died of cancer and she lives alone with her fat cat Leo. No one would know the cat was named for Tolstoy, in fact no one has any idea of Renee's intelligence, her love of books, museums, movies and art in all forms. She chooses to show the world only a slow witted, competent concierge because she worries people may both expect too much of her and fear her if they know of her intelligence.
Paloma, on the other hand, is born into a very wealthy family who greatly values intelligence, to a degree but she thinks would fear her exceptional abilities. They converse, but only on an acquisitive level. She feels none of them has an ability to see the "real" nature of life - that it is absurd, and we all just end up with no more purpose than swimming in a goldfish bowl. So having great disdain for them all she plans to kill herself and set fire to her apartment on her 13th birthday. In the meantime she keeps two journals, one of profound thoughts and one of the movement of the world "finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning."
I think this is where the love it or hate it nature of readers' reactions to the book comes in. Some readers can't see beyond the disdain these two characters have for the people around them. Well, first of all, Paloma is 12, an intelligent 12. Disdain is in her nature. Renee, on the other hand is a woman who thinks herself not beautiful and whose job it is to wait on the wealthy who seem to value appearance more than anything. When she is talking about the death of her husband, she says, "Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation of every day life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it...a non-entity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never fully emerged." There's nothing like associating with rich people to make a person feel less than equal. So, I don't mind the disdain.
The reason I love this book is that it so clearly points out beauty and the meaning of beauty in the world. A first glimpse of beauty is in Renee's description of a tea ritual,..."when tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things...with each swallow time is sublimed." The book is called the Elegance of the Hedgehog because it mentions the elegance of the creature living inside the prickly exterior of the hedgehog that everyone sees. Rather it should have been named Camellias because the beginning of the romance of this book comes when Renee describes a Japanese movie she has seen. First she says that "...you desperately need Art, You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny". In the film The Munekata Sisters, the father, who is about to die, and daughter talk about a moss temple they have seen and the beauty of a camellia on the moss, then the violet mountains of Kyoto which look like azuki bean paste. "True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time...The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains...this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to? And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?" For me, the book could have ended with this observation. Both Renee and Paloma are able to see the camellia on the moss and to make me see it too. Surprisingly the story doesn't end there.. Connections are made, friendships grow. The story of Renee and Paloma continues to build and build to the most perfect ending I could envision. I will be recommending this book to everyone.
On the other hand, if you zoom out a bit and look at the book as a whole, there doesn't seem to be very much there. The notion of the narrator as the only clever person in a world full of unappreciative, stupid people is a literary trope as old as the hills, and having two such narrators in the same book just comes over as arrogant. There's also an odd incongruity between the narrative conventions applied to the two narrators, Renée and Paloma. Renée, the widowed, fifty-something concièrge who reads Tolstoy and Hegel, is a believable, naturalistic portrait: I've certainly met many people like that over the years (if you have anything to do with an institution like the Open University, you soon realise that the world is full of highly intelligent people who missed out on formal education). Only her somewhat Dickensian childhood seems a bit anachronistic for someone born in France in the 1950s. The adolescent Paloma, on the other hand, obviously isn't meant as a naturalistic portrait. Her insights into the world around her are clever and often very amusing, but they are those of an adult, based on an adult's experience of life. There's nothing wrong with this technique, in itself, but it's oddly disturbing side-by-side with Renée's narrative. Barbery foregrounds the difference by presenting Renée's narrative as a simple train of thought, but Paloma's as a series of written documents (numbered Pensées profondes and Journaux du mouvement du monde).
The central message of the book — that life is worth living after all, because it contains moments of beauty and the pleasure of helping others — is presented very cleverly, but it's ultimately rather a banal thought.
It's a very French book, moving at a glacial, Proustian pace for the most part, but with clever injections of action in the style of le chick-lit anglo-saxon here and there to take us off our guard. Essentially nothing happens in the first 200 pages or so, which are used to establish to the reader just how anti-social both Renée and Paloma are. Even when things do start to happen, the pace is kept tantalisingly slow. When Renée goes out to dinner, it takes her three chapters to get from the front door of her host's apartment to the kitchen, then a further two to go to the toilet. If you are happy to read it slowly and pause to enjoy the language, that's fine, but you would probably get very irritated with it if you were skimming through the philosophy and looking for the storyline. If you are a madeleines-and-tisane sort of reader, you'll probably enjoy this (especially if you can read it in French); if you're looking for fast-moving action or romance, other novels are available.
As the story develops, both Renee and Paloma learn to live. Renee by learning to be herself and open herself to love and friendship, Paloma by choosing to help heal the hurts she sees around her.
A couple of quotes I really liked:
"when the struggle to dominate our primate aggressiveness takes up arms as powerful as books and words, the undertaking is an easy one, and that is how I became an educated person, finding in written symbols the strength to resist my own nature."
"Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."
"We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors."
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of Renée Michel, who says of herself, “I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet” with “the breath of a mammoth” (19). She has served as concierge for an upscale condo building in Paris for twenty-seven years. Renée also refers to herself as “poor, discreet, and insignificant” (18). Despite all this, she is extremely intelligent and incredibly well-read across an amazingly eclectic selection of literature, philosophy, history, art, and politics.
Living with her parents and an older sister in one of the eight luxury apartments is Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, June 16th. Paloma describes herself as “Exceptionally intelligent” (23). Paloma likes few things more than reading, and she, too, is incredibly well-read for someone her age.
What these two share amounts to an obsessive desire to hide their intelligence from the world. Renée does so because of her position as a concierge, “since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour” (19), and Paloma does so because “an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace” (23).
The lives of these two characters intersect in a surprising and unforgettable way. Elegance represents one of the finest examples of the psychological novel I have ever read. This complicated genre examines the “invisible life” of a character, who employs an interior monologue to describe her unspoken and subconscious existence. The list of practitioners of this form of the novel date back to Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad up to James Joyce and William Faulkner. If this sounds dry and dull, I will admit it can be. But Barbery has defied that stereotype and written a magnificent, wonderful, and lovely book.
The story abounds with literary and cultural references. It does take a fair amount of concentration, but I can list ten or twelve chapters that I immediately re-read to absorb the full impact of the prose. When thinking about a cup of tea, Renée muses,
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment” (91).
What a wonderful line – “a jewel of infinity in a single moment.” Breathtaking prose like this occurs on nearly every page.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog or the original title, L’Élégance du Hérisson, is clearly one of the finest novels I have read in many years. If you call yourself a reader, you must read this book. Now. Without delay. 10 stars. The highest possible rating.
Paloma and Renee are two of the most amazing characters I've ever met in any book. The way their thoughts were so in-sync. surprised but then as I got to know them, I expected it. These two characters were connected in a way that rarely happens with people.
Though I have a million more, these two stood out:
“Personally, I think there is only one thing to do: find the task we have been placed on this earth to do, and accomplish it as best we can, with all our strength, without making things complicated or thinking there’s anything divine about our animal nature. This is the only way we will ever feel that we have been doing something constructive when death comes to get us.” – page 238
“Nor must we forget that these old people were young once, that a lifespan is pathetically short, that one day you’re twenty and the next day you’re eighty.” – page 128
Renee reminded me about camellias and destiny. Paloma reminded me of hope for the future and what we were put on this earth to do.
Totally amazing book. I’ll remember these characters forever.
This book was not what I had expected. I was expecting something lighter but what I received for the time I took to read this book, was something much deeper, more philosophical and much more insightful than the synopsis on the jacket cover alluded to.
The book made me consider how many people there are who go through life hiding who they really are, and how many people hide their true intellect because they fear ridicule, or because they just want to blend in and be accepted by society with fewer expectations.
The relationship between the young Paloma and the old concierge Renee does not come into play until the last third of the book. But it is the relationship between Paloma and the elegant Mr Ozu, and the relationship between Mr Ozu and Renee that are the shining moments in this book. Mr Ozu, the new resident in the building is an unexpected link to the 2 ladies and the catalyst that helps them both emerge from their personal shadows.
But some times, and very few indeed, you discover a book, not by a fancy cover, the enchanting title or the book loudly screaming “read me, read me!” while you rub your aching leg from all the kicking. Once in a while a book creeps unnoticeably up behind your back, whispering gently in your ear “you can read me if you want…”. No fuss, no screaming, yet it is the most wonderful creation of literature you have read in a long time. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is this type of book. It neither screams nor casting spells. It is what it is, a thoughtful, intelligent, sweet, heartwarming creation of a story. Through a few short weeks we get all the insights of the life in number 7, Rue de Grenelle, a grand apartment building in Paris.
Paloma is twelve, soon turning thirteen, and dead set on ending her life and setting her luxurious apartment on fire on her birthday. The young girl can see no reason to continue her monotonous existence of a life, appalled by all the wrong doings in the world, and way too smart for her own age. Through the whole book we get to follow her search for a reason to live, sometimes through her profound thoughts about society, her family, animals, the new neighbour or whatever occupies a young girls mind.
Renée is the concierge in number 7, Rue de Grenelle, an uneducated woman of fifty-four, but still as well read and smart as any MA student at a good university. She has decided to live a lie. Scared to face the world outside the apartment building, she is set on living the role of a true concierge, hiding her knowledge from everyone but her best, and only, friend. But things are about to change for the both of them. Will Paloma find a reason to live and will Renée be able to live a life as a person, not the role of a concierge?
This book is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is smart, sweet, witty yet serious, very thought provoking and moving. It is a low whisper that will stick with you for a long time after reading it, both unusual and insightful. The language is lovely and the characters so well described you feel they are sitting right next to you. Definitely a memorable book, that I will enjoy countless times in the future.
Anyways, the two characters - Renee and Paloma, respectively - frown upon the snobs that populate upper-class French society - while not noticing that their condescending, disgusted attitude at these 'snobs' makes them snobs in themselves.
One of the worst - if not THE worst - books I've ever read
There are some funny portions but neither of the protagonists could really be called charming and it is quite a demanding read. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a translation from French because it was so well done. Alison Anderson is the translator but her name only appears on the inside back cover and on the title page. I think she deserves more notice than that because this could not have been an easy book to translate.
As I said, there are two protagonists: Madame Renee Michel, the 54 year old concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle in Paris and Paloma Josse, 12 years old and also a resident at number 7, rue de Grenelle. Both Renee and Paloma are very intelligent but Renee, who is self-taught, has been able to hide her intelligence all these years because a concierge is not supposed to be reading Tolstoy or interested in fine art. Paloma also tries to hide her intelligence but isn't as successful as Madame Michel because she still comes first in her class. She studies her parents and their friends and is convinced that adult life holds no attraction for her. She has therefore decided to commit suicide when she turns 13 but meanwhile she is constructing two journals. One will be profound thoughts but they can only be in the form of haiku or tanka, three lines and five lines respectively. Paloma loves all things Japanese. The other will be an exploration of "the masterpieces of matter" because she wants to make sure there isn't something worth living for that she would miss if she committed suicide.
Madame Michel is a devotee of Japanese cinema. When the new owner of one of the apartments, who is Japanese, is introduced to her she does not catch his name but she slips up in her facade of stupidness by quoting the first line of Anna Karenina:
All happy families are alike.
The new owner recognizes the quote and replies:
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
In this way is Madame Michel unmasked. Monsieur Ozu, who has the same last name as her favourite Japanese director, confides to Paloma that he thinks the concierge is not what she seems. Paloma has also noticed some things. Soon Madame Michel is dining with Monsiur Ozu and having heart to heart talks with Paloma and her life is changed. Paloma's life is also changed by Madame Michel and Monsieur Ozu.
The ending is a bit of a shock but I won't say more so as not to spoil things. I can see more stories coming out of number 7, rue de Grenelle or at least I certainly hope so.
The following passage is Madame Michel's musing about the pleasure in sharing tea with a friend and I thought it was wonderful:
At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasure will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles. [She and her housekeeper friend are having tea in the morning for the first time.] Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time. Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn--and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb. So, let us drink a cup of tea.
It may not sound like much of a plot, but "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a fascinating novel so full of philosophical insights that even a second reading may not bring out its full potential. I haven't been this intrigued by a book since I read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". It's a simple, yet elegant, story full of interesting characters.
And yet, I didn't altogether like it.
My first complaint deals with the two main characters, both of whom are so condescending that it's nearly impossible to relate to them. It's only by the end of the story that the reader is able to form a bond with either of them.
And there is my second complaint...the ending. I can't help but feel as though the writer gave up. It was as if she couldn't envision a way to make her characters happy, so she opted for the opposite by offering a Jody Picoult-style ending.
But although I'm giving this book only three out of five stars, I still recommend reading it. There are parts when the prose soars, and much of the observations will stay with the reader for a long time. It is a beautifully-written novel.
The first thing that struck me about this novel is how very French it is, and I wondered whether the references to Parisian prototypical personalities translated well into other languages and cultures. The character of Renée was an interesting one, very profound and saddled with a difficult past, coming as she did from a dirt-poor family where the parents barely knew their own children by name. I enjoyed the way she recounted her play-acting as the dumb concierge when dealing with the tenants, which greatly contrasted with her great intellect, but grew a little bit annoyed with Barbery's insistence that the reader should be greatly surprised to discover a concierge with so much culture. But then again, the French are very class-conscious and very attached to their ideas of what a person's role and aptitudes should be, and none more so than the wealthy who insist on maintaining a clear divide.
Next, I was quite daunted with just how intense the novel was. Between Renée's philosophic ruminations, which granted, are served up along with plenty of amusing incidents about her dealings with the tenants, and Paloma's angst-ridden observations on her admittedly amusingly flawed family members, the novel, which from the outset sounded like it had an amusing premise demanded the reader's full attention and intellect. Thankfully, things did lighten up quite a bit, at least temporarily with the arrival of the new tenant, Mr Kakuro Ozu, which was a great and much needed relief. I couldn't help but think that Barbery felt like she had a lot to prove and was compelled to demonstrate the extent of her culture and understanding of human nature, perhaps because something about this novel seemed a little bit forced, especially when one considers the ending she opted for, which I'm still trying to make my mind up about. Had she written herself into a corner and decided there was only one way to conclude, or rather, was she trying to demonstrate how vital it is that we pay attention to life's every minute detail? I don't know, but the impression I'm left with is that it was a bit of a cop-out.
Did I like this novel? I honestly can't quite say. I was hoping that I'd be able to figure it out by writing this review, but I'm still undecided. I can honestly say that I'm glad that I read it, because it presented interesting characters and interactions, though perhaps this wasn't the optimal timing for me to read an existentialist treaty on life and death, half of which is seen through the eyes of a brooding adolescent, having been there, done that; it wasn't much fun this time around either.
Review: So I’ve heard a lot of good buzz about this book. It was a big hit in France, and it was lauded for being a very philosophical book. Not much happens in plot, but a lot happens in thinking. Most of the book is about Renee and Paloma mulling over ideas about life, culture, and beauty. They are both dissatisfied with the current intellectual and cultural climate in France, especially that of the bourgeoisie.
In many ways, this is a novel about class. As a Canadian, class concerns are a bit novel to me. That isn’t to say we don’t have class distinctions in Canada, but they are not as rigid as they seem to be in Renee’s world. So that was fascinating to read about.
Also, I ended up liking both Renee and Paloma, which I didn’t think I would at first. They are both very critical, somewhat pretentious people themselves. But their personalities grew on me.
However, I cannot say I really enjoyed the book, because despite its promising premise, it has managed to hit one of my biggest pet peeves: it is orientalist. In expressing their frustrations with their own culture, Renee and Paloma embark on a love affair with Japanese culture. Which would be fine, but their portrayal of Japanese culture is so romantic and idealized that I could not stomach it. Japan was like the Mary Sue of the book — anyone with connections to it could do no wrong and were clearly better than those poor, ignorant Parisians. Ugh. It was especially obnoxious to me because the virtues that Renee and Paloma see in Japanese culture are informed by their tradition of western European liberal humanism. So it never felt like real Japanese culture on display. More like Japanese culture dressed up in western clothing for westerners to ooh and aah over. Not my thing.
Conclusion: An ambitious novel, but I could not stand its portrayal of other cultures.
Since I read a translation by novelist Alison Anderson, whose "Hidden Latitudes" I read ten or so years ago and quite liked, any comment I make on the writing of this book is misplaced. I don't know what Muriel Barbery's writing is like. I know that Barbery is well served by her translator. Anderson presents us with a text whose twining first-person narratives rather resemble the narrative technique she used in "Hidden Latitudes" to tell Amelia Earhart's imagined life stranded on a desert island.
What do Paloma, a twelve-year-old child of privilege and Renée, a fifty-four-year-old daughter of poverty have in common? The novel sets out to define their commonality of cause and kinship. That they are sisters under the skin is a set-piece of the book from the start. This really isn't good news, since the characters are not necessarily best understood as being in tandem; they share one central characteristic that organizes each one's life: They hide. Hiding from others, the masks required of those who are different from the norm, this rich seam is well and fully explored in this novel. It is even over-explored. Perhaps “beaten half to death” would be the way to say it. Paloma is far smarter than her elegant Parisian power-couple parents or her very bright (in an average sort of way) college-student sister. She begins her journey through the pages by announcing that, on her next birthday, she will commit suicide and simultaneously burn her home down. Adolescent angst, oh goody, was my first thought. Little Paloma with no problemas wants to kill herself, well sugar, go do that and leave old man Richard alone. Little by little, Paloma records in her two journals the few things she can find in her little world that make life worth living. It is these reflections and observations that make the meat of the book, that give us enough insight into this young person's development to make reading her philosophical ramblings worth the time and effort.
Renée, the adult in the piece, is even less obviously sympathetic; she's decided to hide her intelligence and be, to all outward appearances, the typical working-class occupant of a concierge's loge. She isn't that at all, and she reports to us in her first-person narration that she has no respect for those who employ her since they are so easily fooled into believing her crafted image. So far, so average. What makes this book's whole greater than the sum of its parts is the quality of the philosophical musings the two characters indulge in; they are very well worth the time to read.
I can't say I was happy with the ending of this book and I was distinctly irked by the revelation of the Great Buried Secret in Renée's past, it seemed so pat and contrived and predictable. Paloma's plot line resolves in a great whoosh of predictability, too. But this is a book that uses the formula (loners are people, too! Loneliness is bad! Look around you, there are treasures on every doorstep!) to a very satisfying-to-read end. On balance, recommended reading for anyone who likes underdog stories, and who has an interest in philosophical musings. Worth a read for anyone who simply wants to pass a few pleasant hours. Avoid at all costs if happy endings are the only ones you like. Don't bother with the book if you are looking for any sort of challenge in the reading or the thinking you'll do here.
“I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college; I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any special effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species.”
But there is so much more to Renee. She is also interested in philosophy, art, literature, music, foreign films, and the Japanese tea ritual among other things. She prefers to hide her cultured tastes behind society’s stereotypes for her class because she knows that no matter what she will never fit in. Renee’s best friend is Manuela, the Portuguese maid for most of the building’s residents. With Manuela she is able to share some of her inner joys and be more herself. But the rest of the world is kept at a discreet distance.
Paloma Josse is a highly intelligent 12 year old who lives with her well-to-do parents in one of the apartments. She works hard to make sure the world around her doesn’t have any idea how intelligent she really is. Paloma loves to hide away from the world, reading manga, and journaling about her philosophy on life, and the human condition. She believes adults are always foolishly striving to be adult, when they really have no idea what life’s all about and how to get along in the world. As she writes in her journal:
“Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is, is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realize that's not true, it's too late.”
“We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of bees, but we are in truth nothing but poor bees, destined to accomplish our task and then die.”
Paloma sees the world around her as cruel and ugly, and she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
Both Renee and Paloma encase themselves in a public persona that hides their true identities. Their observations on those around them are so intuitive yet they are not sure what to make of the world. Neither of them feels that they would be accepted for who they truly are. A very interesting look at the metaphorical hedgehog that I believe exists in all of us to some degree.
When a long-time resident of the apartment building dies, a new resident moves in. Kakuro Ozu is a cultured Japanese businessman whom everyone is immediately curious about. Upon arrival, Kakuro immediately sees behind the facade of Renee and he watches her carefully. He knows she shares a passion for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and he approaches her about it. Renee is very put out that Kakuro can see through her “outer spines” as it were, and she doesn’t know how to react.
As friendships blossom between these three, Renee and Paloma begin to see more beauty in the world around them.and they start to imagine what role they might play in that world.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this book at first and it really took me quite some time to get into it. I was put off by all the cynicism that both Renee and Paloma exhibited. Perhaps because I have enough of my own! It’s not a comforting book, but it had definite moments of beauty. For me it was a book that very slowly crept in, and I found myself changing my mind and thinking “this is good, this is really getting good,” then the end comes along and it really smacks you in the face! My initial reaction was to give the book 3 stars, however the more I think about it, the more I like it. I may be thinking about this one for quite some time.