Saturday, June 18, 2011
Book Review - Bestsellers - The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
I’m more than a little late in reading Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book that “Le Figaro” described as “the publishing phenomenon of the decade.” Though the book might have been the “publishing phenomenon of the decade” in France, where it sold more than one million copies and won numerous awards, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the “publishing phenomenon of the decade” in the US. Nor were the comparisons to Proust on target. This is a good book, a very good book, and it’s a book that sometimes concerns itself with the elongation of time, but it’s definitely not Proust. No one writing today is Proust. I just want to make that perfectly clear.
The story, almost all of which is set inside an upscale Paris apartment building, is told in alternating chapters belonging to Renée Michel, the fifty-four-year-old bunion ridden concierge of the above mentioned apartment building, who is secretly passionate about literature and philosophy, and twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, the precocious daughter of a bourgeois family, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Renée reads Tolstoy and Husserl in her spare time, and Paloma is determined to burn the apartment building down prior to her death. Renée and Paloma rarely speak to each other, and unbeknownst to them, the two share many things in common, among them a love of Japan, art, beauty, and philosophy.
Renée, it should be pointed out, has reasons for remaining a closet intellectual. The inhabitants of 7 Rue de Grenelle include a celebrated restaurant critic, high government officials, and several members of the old nobility. For these haughty residents, Renée Michel only exists if and when they want or need something from her. As incomprehensible as it might seem, actual scandal would ensue should these inhabitants discover their dowdy concierge enjoyed such “high falutin’” things as Mahler and Japanese cinema. And Renée prefers it that way. She has no desire to be the object of everyone’s curiosity and ridicule. “To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent,” says Renée, “condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to adopt at an early age.” And even if the above weren’t true, Renée needs to maintain her low status in order to keep her job, a job she sorely needs.
While Renée’s chapters consist of standard literary narrative, Paloma’s take the form of “Profound Thoughts,” written in haiku and crammed into a looseleaf notebook. Paloma writes wonderfully of beauty. The beauty of movement, such as a petal falling from a rose, is something that fascinates her (though it’s still not, by any stretch of the imagination, Proust), and she intends for these collected “Profound Thoughts” to be her legacy to the world after she is gone:
The main thing isn’t about dying or how old you are when you die, it’s what you are doing the moment you die. In Taniguchi the heroes die while climbing Mount Everest. Since I haven’t the slightest chance of taking a stab at K2 or the Grandes Jorasses before June sixteenth, my own personal Everest will be an intellectual endeavor. I have set my goal to have the greatest number possible of profound thoughts, and to write them down in this notebook: even if nothing has any meaning, the mind, at least, can give it a shot, don’t you think?
While Paloma’s “Profound Thoughts” may very well be profound, especially for a girl of almost thirteen, the language is reminiscent of a young teenager. Renée’s, however, are written in more formal language:
When of a sudden Old Japan intervenes: from one of the apartments wafts a melody, clearly, joyfully distinct. Someone is playing a classical piece on the piano. Ah, sweet, impromptu moment, lifting the veil of melancholy…In a split second of eternity, everything is changed, transfigured. A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.
The reader knows, of course, that something is going to upset the apple cart, change the status quo. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the apple cart is upset when one of the celebrated residents of the apartment building dies, and a mysterious and cultured Japanese man, Kakura Ozu, moves in. Kakura Ozu is a quiet man, but this doesn’t stop him from befriending both Paloma and Renée, and the balance of the book will revolve around these three characters.
With Monsieur Ozu, Paloma comes to the conclusion that Renée’s outward appearance belies an inner elegance, the “elegance of the hedgehog”:
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.
There’s not a lot of action in this book, and it’s very “talky.” Some might even call it didactic, especially those who don’t like the novel. It’s a character study of Renée, Paloma, and Monsieur Ozu as Barbery explores her favorite themes – the application of philosophy to everyday life, and the skewering of class-consciousness. And skewer they do. Paloma can’t stand her life of wealth and privilege; she despises her older sister, Colombe, as well as her politician father and her plant obsessed, Flaubert quoting mother. For her part, Renée knows people like Paloma’s parents never see much beyond their own creature comforts, and she pities them for it.
There’s no doubt that the beginning of the book is slow. Much of the early pages of the novel are dedicated to the day-to-day routine of life in 7 Rue de Grenelle, as seen through the eyes of Renée or Paloma. The short, alternating chapters can get a bit wearisome with so much philosophizing going on, and Renée and Paloma mirror each other so perfectly that the contrivance of the book begins to lose its charm. That’s why I was happy when Monsieur Ozu made his entrance. He’s the one who really kicks this book into high gear.
Kakura Ozu sees something in both Renée and Paloma that both have failed to see, in themselves or in each other. (Really, as good as both Renée and Paloma are at analyzing everything around them, neither is good at self-analysis.) Paloma, Monsieru Ozu knows, though she talks like an adult, is still a child. Even her vow to kill herself is filled with childish melodrama, though most readers will find this sort of childishness more charming than anything else. Renée finds that it’s impossible to wear a mask of intellectualism under the penetrating gaze of Monsieur Ozu. For perhaps the first time in her life, Renée’s caught off-guard, she loses her balance – just a little. Maybe she really does need more than books and music and the cinema. Maybe she needs more than beauty. Maybe she needs other people. Little-by-little, Renée’s inner longings are made clear, and as they are, we learn, for all her love of Mozart and Mahler and Tolstoy and the Japanese cinema, this lovely woman is certainly no snob. If one wants to be a storyteller, a superb storyteller, Renée tells us, one need look no further than “The Hunt for Red October”:
One wonders why universities persist in teaching narrative principles on the basis of Propp, Greimas or other such punishing curricula, instead of investing in a projection room. Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers.
Though most of the story belongs to Renée, Paloma, too, has her moments to shine, though for me, some of those moments rang as false as a foghorn on a clear, sunny day. The worst occurred when Madame Josse takes her daughter, who she’s convinced is being “too secretive,” to an icy Parisian therapist. Paloma, not one to be maneuvered into a situation not of her making decides she’s capable of “taking on” the therapist on her own:
Listen carefully, Mr. Permafrost Psychologist, you and I are going to strike a little bargain. You're going to leave me alone and in exchange I won't wreck your little trade in human suffering by spreading nasty rumors about you among the Parisian political and business elite. And believe me – at least if you say you can tell just how intelligent I am – I am fully capable of doing this.
That was so bad, I actually found it embarrassing. It was painful to read and painful to write in this review. It didn’t work. Thankfully, the therapist is the only person Paloma attempts to best with her childish threats.
All in all, despite the intellectual monologues and treatises on obscure subjects, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very sentimental book, so reminiscent of the film, “Amélie of Montmartre,” though lacking that film’s originality. This sentimentality, though, is made bearable by the genuine sweetness of the characters. Renée really is genuine and sincere; Paloma, underneath her high IQ, really is an innocent child; and Monsieur Ozu really is the most charming of men and possessed of the most generous of spirits.
Thankfully, Barbery eschewed sentimentality when writing her ending, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog is definitely not a “feel good” novel. In fact, by the time you reach this book’s dénouement, you’re more likely to have tears in your eyes than a smile on your face.
No, I didn’t think the book was perfect. Not by any means. It has its faults. But I liked it very much. I really enjoyed reading it. I loved spending time with its characters. I won’t soon forget Renée, Paloma, and Monsieur Ozu. Renée, especially, won a place in my heart. She’s exactly the type of person I love getting to know.
Recommended: Yes, if you can stand the book’s early interior monologues and like Renée’s formal language. And the book is sentimental, despite the intellectualism of its characters, however the loveliness of the characters offsets most of the saccharine sweetness. It’s not a perfect book, but it is one that’s rewarding to read.
Note to Muriel Barbery: Where is Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox?” With Renée’s love of the great Russian Realist, I thought this was one reference you wouldn’t miss.