When I first started lurking on book blogs, it seemed as though The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery [translated by Alison Anderson] was just, ya know, everywhere. A post that stands out is from Matt who loved the book, and, much later when I’d begun blogging in earnest, from Kevin who didn’t so much, observing that the novel often took “muddy diversions.” I was confused for a couple of weeks, but faced with an actual copy–Here! In this country!–I couldn’t say no. And I’m glad I didn’t, because even though I found the same problems that Kevin did–I felt that some parts I read out of politeness, the kind one has to put up when faced with a self-indulgent philosopher god-aunt–overall, I liked it a lot. Language and characters, really. I like you, Muriel Barbery, I do.
The gist of it: There’s Renée Michel, the concierge of a swanky apartment catering to the French bourgeois. Mme Michel is not who she appears to be–for one, her cat’s namesake is Leo Tolstoy. The other half of the story is of, and told by, Paloma Josse’s, twelve-going-on-thirteen, incredibly intelligent and insightful. That’s basically it, our two heroines battling reputations and labels and roles and the opinions of other people. Toss in cynicism, a lot of metaphysical questions, a house overrun with cats and camellias. There’s a lot of issues, but plot counter’s a little low. Which is fine by me–I’ve always enjoyed character-driven fiction more, somehow.
Anyhoo. What follows are the notes I scribbled as I read the book [as always, apologies for certain incoherencies]–the picture above shows the book at the first couple of minutes into my reading it. What it actually looks like now, studded with Post-it notes. The language is quaint, charming, all-around smart. Occasionally wise, more often profound. I, of course, shall try not to inundate you with lifted quotes. So:
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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.
♦ Renée Michel. A concierge trying to lie low, playing dumb, playing placid, somehow. That blank gaze and wooden speech she assumes in the presence of the bourgeois. She has a secret to keep, and I noticed early on that there’s this arrogance in her secret, that there’s a superiority in how she cultivates the cliché. There’s a touch of condescension to her actions, actually. Especially her thoughts. She spends her days in the back room, watching a Shakespearean play, crying at strains of Mahler–while at the concierge desk, another TV babbles away, acting as both shroud and armor. I want to know why.
Apparently, now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is. They complain without understanding and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they dopassagn’t want to go. The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence! Cynics of this kind frequently dine at Papa’s table: “What has become of the dreams of our youth?” they ask, with a smug, disillusioned air. “Those years are long gone, and life’s a bitch.” I despise this false lucidity that comes with age. The truth is that they are just like everyone else: nothing more than kids without a clue about what has happened to them, acting big and tough when in fact all they want is to burst into tears.
♦ And then we meet 12-year-old Paloma, with “Profound Thought No.1.” I am immediately charmed by this intelligent and insightful little girl. And no, I do not think it is pretentious–I think it is true and gorgeous. Why do people doubt the truth behind wise twelve-year-olds? There’s nothing mystical about how Paloma was written, nothing cutesy or overboard-clever. I don’t know, I believe her.
♦ More and more apparent to the reader that we eventually impose that it’s a conscious decision of the author’s–the parallelisms and the vast differences between Renée and Paloma. Sometimes they observe the same things, sometimes they wax lyrical about the same phenomena. But Barbery does this subtly. I do not, ever, feel like there is only one person behind two mouthpieces. Like Renée complaining about phenomenology–of all things, gah–and later Paloma obsering and reflecting on her mother’s ritual with the houseplants–the object itself disappears, it is perception, i.e. ritual, that’s important.
♦ Oh, phenomenology. Oh, discussions about Art and Life and Profundity. Barbery the Philosophy Professor cannot help it, I suppose. I don’t mind so much. [Four years of metaphysics can do that to you, dammit.] Although there can be a small problem that arises in the philosophizing. I take back what I just said, to a certain extent: When Renée and Paloma get carried away, they’re very nearly indistinguishable. You can’t tell them apart. Maybe that is the point, this late in the novel, maybe they’re meant to be occasionally pedantic? Not so much preachy as it is navel-gazing.
♦ There’s a slowness-stillness to this that I don’t find bothersome. Not much happens in real life for much of the novel’s course. It’s a stillness of action because we go into the minds of the characters, where it’s actually wilder and more lucid than the reality that surrounds them. Even Paloma’s “Journal of the Movement of the World,” the actions we witness have Paloma’s thoughts as conduit. It’s not necessarily cerebral; I like to think of it as reflective. And man, whereas Paloma’s “Profound Thoughts” title was just charming, “Journal of the Movement of the World” just knocks my socks off. I want to make it mine.
♦ Another thing I found problematic: The coming together of Renée, Paloma, Mr. Ozu [ETA: I had no notes about Mr. Ozu, haha. Now what does this oversight say?], and Manuela are rather late in the novel. Abrupt, compared to how the previous parts of the novel flowed so slowly yet fluidly. Also: [spoiler] Did Renée have to die? And the motivations, the driving force behind her facade, flimsy at best. Maybe because, well, the alternate–[alternate-spoiler?]Ozu and Renée happy together–is too Hollywood? Then why why why did Barbery craft the novel into a corner? We can be anything we want to be, Kakuro Ozu tells Renée. And just like that, Mlle Barbery, just like that?
♦ Overall, an insightful book with charming characters–if structurally flawed. And despite those flaws, I still ended up really really liking the novel–for one, I am quite glad I read Barbery. [I don’t know if I’m reading her Gourmet Rhapsody; I’m not a food-book kind of gal, and there’s that snippy thing called a Self-Imposed Book Ban–I don’t think Barbery’s first novel will make the cut as One Book Bought This Month. Augh, fuck essentials. Aherm.] I am however, looking forward to what your third novel has in store for us. So get on it.] Where was I? Oh, yes, I like you, book. I like you a lot.