Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008)

As for Madame Michel… how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her…. 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.

Nearly everyone in this book is trying to appear to be something other than what they are. That’s true of all of us, I suppose. As always, it’s the journey that forms the plot: from fear to joy, from despair to wonder, on the rails of art. With a lot of philosophy along the way.

The plot starts out at glacial speed, but ends up moving at breakneck pace. I wonder if that’s really the case, though, or if I’d just become accustomed to the pages and pages of exposition and textual thought bubbles between each tiptoe step forward. It isn’t until page 77 – almost a quarter of a way through the novel – that we come to “And that is when it all started”, and it takes nearly another hundred pages before the plot starts to develop. But what is in between is not mere padding; it’s all important, it all is drawn into the plot, though we have to be patient to find out how. And it’s fascinating to someone like me, who loves to learn about something new, whether it’s Francis Bacon or the camellia-on-moss imagery in the Yasujirō Ozu film The Munekata Sisters or her admiration for the writing style of the restaurant critic whose death, the subject of an earlier novel, begins the chain of events that make up the plot for this story.

We follow two narrators who take turns delivering short chapters. Reneé Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building (a hôtel particulier, which, I take it, is something like an American luxury condominium – forgive me, my lack of familiarity with everyday life in France is showing). She’s in her 50s, dumpy and lumpy, and has had a lifelong passion for reading, art, films, philosophy, and the beauty of language. Yet she has a desperate need to hide her intelligence and extensive knowledge; we don’t find out exactly why until much later in the book.

The other narrator, Paloma Joss, is a 12-year-old girl, living with her family on the 5th floor. She, too, is hiding her intelligence, though her motivation is less complex: she just doesn’t want the burden of increased family expectations. She has decided that life is disappointing, and there is nothing in this world that is worth the effort, so she plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday if nothing convinces her otherwise. Her narration is in the form of a journal containing both Profound Thoughts, and Movement of the World.

…if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life…. 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 of the Movement of the World 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.

For most of the book, these two characters don’t interact, barely seem aware of each other. Yet, their narrations bounce off each other. When Reneé considers, and eventually rejects, Husserl’s phenomenology (having struggled with phenomenology in several moocs on Consciousness, I can identify), Paloma separates her journal into thought and matter; they consider art in congruent chapters, coming to the conclusion that “Beauty is consonance”, a thought that persists throughout the book. And eventually, we realize they are quite aware of each other. It’s just that they’d rather rip into the other tenants in the building.

Scenes of great humor lighten up what could otherwise be a heavy text. Paloma observes two of her neighbors whose dogs, on their respective leashes, insist on smelling each others’ butts, as dogs do. The women are clearly uncomfortable, but “… they are incapable of doing the only truly practical thing in cases like this: acknowledge what is going on in order to prevent it.”

The complications begin when a new neighbor arrives to take over the apartment vacated by the family of the deceased restaurant critic. He’s a distinguished middle-aged Japanese gentleman, generating great curiosity from all the tenants. He’s very polite to all, yet seems uninterested in them at the same time. Until he meets Reneé, over another tenant’s (relatively minor) usage error of using “bring” instead of “take”, a violation of the structure and beauty of language that Reneé so appreciates in secret:

And yet, there is an element of tragedy: I flinched when she said bring and at that very moment Monsieur Something also flinched, and our eyes met. And since that infinitesimal nanosecond when – of this I’m sure – we were joined in linguistic solidarity by the shared pain that made our bodies shudder, Monsieur Something has been observing me with a very different gaze.
A watchful gaze.

She and the newcomer – whose name turns out to be Monsieur Ozu, connecting the plot to the exposition – trade the opening lines of Anna Karenina as casual conversation, and he asks the name of her cat: Leo. Unlike the other tenants in the building, this gentleman sees her for what she is, yet maintains her secret.

Their relationship ranges from hilarious to sublime. He invites her for dinner, causing a flurry of concern about dresses, hair, and so forth. When she arrives for the dinner, she agonizes over how to ask the location of the bathroom until matters are urgent. Her tendency to overthink is so familiar to me: how should I act? What do normal people expect me to do in a case like this? But when she is taken by surprise by the Confutatis that accompanies the flushing of the toilet – an event that would certainly take me by surprise – she discovers she can relax, that M. Ozu does not have any particular expectations about how one ought to behave. “Can’t everything always be this simple?” she wonders.

At that point, Paloma enters her life more directly, visiting during the day to have a cup of tea and chat. So our isolated, secretive concierge now has two people with whom she can be who she is, two friends.

The book ends in a way I found a bit disappointing, even manipulative, and possibly… lazy? As the pages dwindled to a precious few, I had three possible endings in my head, and this was one of them. Not the worst possibility, but still, considering Pushcart story endings regularly take me by surprise, I was hoping for something more imaginative. I have to admit, in view of the revelation of the reason for Reneé’s desperation to hide her inquisitive mind and self-learning from the world, it makes sense, and forms… ok, a consonance. I still feel there must have been a better resolution, but I’m not bright enough to offer one (I have never had to work hard to keep up a front of ignorance for the world).

It seems this novel was wildly popular in France when it was first published; it seems to have been less successful here. I greatly enjoyed it. Even though the first half is slow-moving, there isn’t a page that doesn’t contain something of interest to me.

I put this on my library “to be read” list several years ago, and I don’t really remember why. At this point, I was interested the descriptions of the protagonists, and the inclusion of so much philosophy and art (Barbery was a philosophy teacher, by the way, and lived in Japan for several years). In spite of my misgivings about the endings, I’m very glad I read it.

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