marginalia || The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; translated by Alison Anderson

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:

* * *

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: [spoilerDid 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.

24 thoughts on “marginalia || The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; translated by Alison Anderson

  1. I really like this book a lot-I enjoyed how it showed how reading shaped the lives of Renee-good point about Renee and Palamona sounding alike when they talk about phenomenology Gourmet Rhapsody is a foodie’s novel-it has long rhapsodical descriptions of food and it centers on the world’s great food critic who lives in the same building as the people in Hedgehog-great review

    1. Thanks, Mel. Though they did sound the same at times, I’ll simply attribute it to a conscious decision of the author’s, haha. I enjoyed the reflections, even if it meant I had to draw from several semesters of philosophy. I’m still not sure, though, about Gourmet Rhapsody. It feels like I won’t enjoy it as much, the whole food critic thing. I can be ambivalent about food in fiction.

  2. I got this book from bookmooch a while ago and it continues to sit on my shelves (like so many other great reads, I’m sure).

    Loved how you shared your thoughts on the book. Great!

  3. Nice review! I loved this too though I wouldn’t say it’s on my all-time favourite list. I agree that there were some structural flaws especially in the first half. The second half was a page-turner don’t you agree? It was definitely a richer experience rereading it again and this time knowing the ending.

    1. I’ve visited your blog, & now I wonder how it’ll be for me when I reread this. In several months, I suppose. I have misgivings about the structure, as I pointed out above. But I actually enjoyed the slowness of the first part more than the page-turner quality of the last. I can be weird, haha. I guess I got used to that style first, as it’d been introduced to me first.

  4. In all the hype I’ve read around this book, I never realized before now that it was originally written in French! And I’ve been looking for more novels to read in French, and, well…thanks! I’m now looking forward to tracking this guy down.

    And I’m with you – not so interested in the foodie novels. Pah.

    1. Oops, I think I forgot to mention up there that the novel’s translated from the French. Come to think of it, I think this is the first [translated] contemporary French novel I’ve read. I’ll certainly look for more, but I’m really not feeling it from Gourmet Rhapsody. Makes me wonder what else is out there that’s waiting to be discovered. I hope you do a feature once you’ve found some, I’m definitely interested. :]

  5. I think a part of the book’s charm (as well as its silliness) lies in the many comments Rene and, if I remember it well, even Paloma make on the way other people talk and the grammatical/syntax mistakes they make. I’m not sure how well your translation managed to convey it, but if you think about it, maybe it’s better that you read it in English, it gives a different view on the two characters since speaking correct English is such a posh snob thing to do. I makes then sound a bit like frauds, in fact.

    1. Hi, Andy — I forgot to mention that, so thank you. :) It’s part of their quirky condescension, I guess. And Barbery sets it up that it gets really really funny: The outrage over subject-verb agreements and tenses, especially. Did you read it in the original language?

  6. “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.”

    Yes! I had the same exact thought!!

    However, I am so ashamed to say I never finished this book. I started it, was about halfway through, then abandoned it. I think I was sidetracked by something; most likely a book far less elegant than this one. After reading your post, however, I absolutely must pick it back up. I do love books like this, that weave together the narratives of so many different characters. I really need to give this book another go.

    1. I really want to keep a “Journal of the Movement of the World.” Yes, I keep a journal, and have for years now–but maybe giving it a title like that would make it more awesome? More profound? :] Anyhoo, when you can, return to this book. It’s not so much that “it gets better” as it is the book reaching just the right place for it to end. One I don’t necessarily approve of, haha, but I appreciate it. :]

  7. I loved this book–I found it charming and refreshing because it was so different. We read it for my book club though and I was pretty much the only one who enjoyed it–the only other fan was my sister. Go figure!

    1. Yes, very very charming. And a lot of people thought it was pretentious, and I’m aware how it could be so–and that’s what’s so cool about it. It knows it’s smart, and doesn’t care, and snags your heart anyway. Well, mine, yours, and your sister’s. :)

      1. I loved how pretentious it was, haha, especially how they nitpicked about the grammar. It’s strange, but as off-putting as the pretentiousness could have been, I was charmed, haha. I’ve tried to think why it works, but you’re right, it just works. :)


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