Vulpes Libris

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

eleganceI’ve come a little late to this book – although translated into English in 2008, Muriel Barbery’s second novel was first published in French back in 2006 – but there is perhaps some advantage to reading a novel after the popular and critical love-ins have receded.


A hybrid of literary and commercial fiction that has been compared to Sophie’s World, The Elegance of the Hedgehog sold over a million copies in France last year, has been translated into over thirty languages, and continues to collect awards. It is a charming paean to friendship and beauty, and as picturesque an attack on the French class system as Francophiles could hope for.


Renée Michel is a 54-year-old concierge living and working in a block of Parisian luxury apartments. An admirer of Tolstoy, Mahler, and Japanese cinema, she hides her refined intellectual tastes behind a veil of mediocrity. Her character reminded me of the surly frouws who man the public toilets in Brussels: thick of heel and whiskered of chin, and universally known as Mesdames Pipi (my maison d’maitre was not staffed by a concierge, but one didn’t have to go far to encounter Renée’s Belgian cousins). Long since resigned to a life of drudgery and servitude, Madame Michel’s one true vice is the clandestine pursuit of knowledge.


Her observations on the lives of the other residents is offset by those of Paloma Josse, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of one of the most bourgeois families in Renée’s building (her father is a diplomat, her mother a champagne socialist, and her sister attends the École normale supérieur) who plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Believing that she has nothing to live for, Paloma has been stealing her mother’s sleeping pills in preparation for a glorious suicide that will, she hopes, teach her selfish family a lesson.


The concierge’s philosophical digressions and Paloma’s secretly recorded “Profound Thoughts” form a series of self-contained essays on subjects ranging from psychoanalysis to manga. At times, these read like a rather transparent vehicle for the author’s pet subjects – lengthy ruminations on Art interrupt one of the more active scenes in the book; a philosophical tangent which felt like a hindrance to the plot rather than an illumination of it – and the integrity of the characters’ voices sometimes suffers as a result.


Paloma, in particular, is far too literate and cynical to be believable; even the most precocious twelve year-old (indeed, many wunderkinds almost by definition) will not have the emotional intelligence or articulacy to launch the scathing critiques of classism that she does. To take two examples:


In the split second while I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of Beauty…And that is why I thought of Ronsard’s poem, though I didn’t really understand it at first: because he talks about time, and roses. Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach out for it. It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death.


and


When you’ve read Jakobson, it becomes obvious that grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means: it provides access to the structure and beauty of language, it’s not some trick to help people get by in society.


That’s not to say that Paloma is entirely humourless; her reflections on the resemblances between cats and their humans certainly made me smile:


At the moment, as I am writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the floor. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life and still she is heading toward something, probably an armchair.


and later,


If you want to understand my family, all you have to do is look at the cats. Our two cats are fat windbags who eat designer kibble and have no interest interaction with human beings. They drag themselves from one sofa to the next and leave their fur everywhere, and no one seems to have grasped that they have no affection for any of us…[M]y mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats…[M]y mother is no longer a child but she apparently has not managed to conceive that Constitution and Parliament possess no more understanding than the vacuum cleaner. When I hear my mother say ‘Constitution is both a very proud and a very sensitive little cat’ when in fact said cat is sprawled on the sofa because she’s eaten too much, it really makes me want to laugh…[Y]ou won’t find anyone less proud and sensitive than the three aforementioned members of the Josse family: Papa, Maman, and Colombe. They are utterly spineless and anesthetized, emptied of all emotion.


Paloma’s youth should offer exciting possibilities for an exploration of an adolescent voice, but the author sadly fails to exploit her young heroine’s potential. The maturity and severity of Paloma’s attacks might just have escaped my notice had it not been for Renée’s description of the child later on. The awkward little girl she sees doesn’t remotely resemble the mental picture I had built up of Paloma over the preceding 300 pages. Perhaps this contrast was intended to make a point – we can’t judge a book by its cover – but the endearing vulnerability that Paloma demonstrates in the final chapters could have added much to her character had it been introduced earlier on.


Similarly, there are issues of believability with Renée’s character – and not simply to do with the fact of a woman who left school at twelve being able to engage with Proust and Husserl, expound on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and quote from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. Although there is a deeper reason for Renée’s suspicion of the upper classes – again, revealed late in the book – I found it difficult to understand her desire to make herself invisible simply because she was born into poverty. Her statement that “To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent, condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age” left me unconvinced, as did her complaint that


Every gray morning, day after gloomy day, secretaries, craftsmen, employees, petty civil servants, taxi drivers and concierges shoulder their burden so that the flower of French youth, duly housed and subsidized, can squander the fruit of all that dreariness upon the altar of ridiculous endeavours


The ‘ridiculous endeavours’ here relate to a university essay on William of Ockham; precisely the kind of obscure erudition that Renée herself indulges in behind the closed doors of her loge. Not everyone is inclined to spend many months refining arguments on the nature of universals, and nor should they be; the direct connection that the speaker draws between the oppressed classes and ignorance on the one hand, and the bourgeoisie and flippant academic pursuits on the other, seems trite at best. It is yet another example of an attitude that grows tiresome with repetition:


To rich people is must seem that the ordinary little people – perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire – experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbours it carried all the weight of injustice and drama.


There is a bitterness here that is, I think, intended to reveal a poignant truth. For me, however, it seemed all too redolent of a French reversion to self-righteous attacks on the gentry. One can almost hear the sans-culottes braying for the guillotine.


Despite these irritations – and such impenetrable observations as “The disposition of the object and the dishes achieves the universal in the singular: the timeless nature of the consonant form” – the concierge, too, is capable of humour. Like Paloma, she draws parallels between animals and people to wry effect:


Though all poodles bark snappily at the slightest provocation, they are particularly inclined to do so when nothing at all is happening…[T]hey have venomous little black eyes set deep in their insignificant eye-sockets. Poodles are ugly and stupid, submissive and boastful. They are poodles, after all. Thus the concierge couple, as served by the metaphor of their totemic poodle, seems to be utterly devoid of such passions as love and desire and, like their totem, destined to remain ugly, stupid, submissive and boastful.


I also found myself empathizing with Renée’s inner Grammar Nazi, which is roused to ire by the unnecessary use of a comma:


‘Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages from the dry cleaner’s?’

If Sabine Pallieres had been a good Portuguese woman born under a fig tree in Faro, or a concierge who’d just arrived from the high-rise banlieues of Paris, or if she were the mentally challenged member of a tolerant family who had taken her in out of the goodness of their hearts, I might have whole-heartedly forgiven such guilty nonchalance. But Saline Pallieres is wealthy…Sabine Pallieres’ misuse of punctuation constitutes an instance of blasphemy that is all the more insidious when one considers that there are marvellous poets born in stinking caravans or high-rise slums who do have for beauty the sacred respect that it is so rightfully owed.


All the griping about class gets a little tired after a few of these rants, the overwrought intellectualizing of frustrated Marxists pining for the battles of yesteryear. Perhaps it would seem justified if the bourgeois caricatures were fleshed out into something more meaningful – but then, they would not be such easy targets, and indignant intellectuals rely on straw men to fuel their indignation. As readers, we are never offered an opportunity to understand why Colombe, Paloma’s despicable sister, is horrid in a way that Paloma is not – there is a worrying whiff of fatalism to this, a kind of inverse snobbery by the intellectual Left. We do not find out if Maman and Papa deserve redemption (one suspects that they do not), or indeed what distinguishes Paloma’s adolescent angst from her depressive mother’s psycho-philosophy.


So much for a storming of the twenty-first century barricades. When you remove the politicizing and the posturing, however, there remains just enough of a story, and just enough empathy for some genuinely likable characters, to allow the novel to flourish.


Renée and Paloma’s shared admiration for Japanese culture is piqued by the arrival of a new tenant, the handsome and mysterious Monsiuer Ozu. Unsurpisingly, a three-way friendship develops that begins to challenge the assumptions of both heroines. The ending, perhaps necessarily, descends into sentimentality that seems at odds with the rest of the book; however, the twist-in-the-tail is cleverly wrought, and should evoke bittersweet emotions in even the stoniest of hearts.


If I have been unduly harsh, it is only because of the coyness with which the author sets her terms. Is this book a thinly-veiled political treatise, an accessible summation of philosophical ideas, or the heartwarming story of a couple of lonely souls who discover an unlikely friendship? I can’t help but feel that the first two taint the third; then again, there wouldn’t be much of a story without some exposition of the inner lives of the two closet intellectuals at its core. This is a deeply engaging novel, if a flawed one. The contempt with which Barbery treats her supporting characters, and the strangely anti-intellectual message we are left with at the end, are the principle detractors from an otherwise impressive work.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog; Muriel Barbery, Europa Editions 2008 (first published 2006) 325 pp. ISBN 978-1-933372-60-0

About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

21 comments on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

  1. Rosy T
    February 20, 2009

    Oooo, I’m so glad you reviewed this, Trilby. Someone I know was telling me about how great it was and I had completely forgotten the title (I’d seriously been searching on Amazon for ‘squirrel’!).

    Mind you, after reading your review, I’m nlot sure if I want to read it or not… I am a sucker a bit of political posturing, myself – but not sure about contempt for minor characters.

  2. Lisa
    February 20, 2009

    Excellent piece, Trilby. I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this book that it was interesting to get a slightly different take on it. I’ve heard a couple of people say that the book was a little let down by a clunky translation. Still want to read it though.

  3. Mantelli
    February 20, 2009

    Wow, that sounds like a book to avoid.

  4. Ys
    February 21, 2009

    It’s really a pleasure to see that some french books are translated in english : it’s quite unusual ! This one is really a success here and I’m happy to see that it can enjoy english readers.

  5. Jackie
    February 21, 2009

    Just as I suspected, this book has nothing at all to do with hedgehogs.It would be very disappointing, had I not braced myself beforehand.
    I believe Renee’s statements on poverty are intended to be sarcastic, it’s missing the point if one takes them otherwise. And poodles are one of the most intelligent breeds of dogs, so that’s just ignorance or prejudice there.
    While I think Paloma’s newfound ideas on beauty and death are the sort of things one realizes at that age, I do agree that an actual 12 year old would not express herself in those words.
    I’ve heard this book mentioned a lot & intend to read it soon, so this review was a nice spur to action. The cover is appropriate, simple, yet elegant.

  6. thomas
    February 22, 2009

    I liked this book,not very much but i found it refreshing and original.Your “spirital” little review is easily agressive,putting depth where there is not.If your critic was half well though as her novel you certainly would be a writer instead of a petulant reviewer.
    This from Jackie is a perfect illustration of your review “And poodles are one of the most intelligent breeds of dogs”
    A bonne entendeur salut.

  7. Moira
    March 1, 2009

    I have a feeling this book might well irritate me quite a lot – in fact I salute you for getting all the way through it, Trilby.

    By the way – can anyone ELSE work out what Thomas’s comment means? Ironically enough, the only part I understood was the slightly tired French cliche at the end …

  8. Trilby
    March 1, 2009

    I really don’t think that people should be put off reading this book – that wasn’t my intention at all. There is much to recommend it (see points above about it being charming, picturesque, clever, bittersweet, deeply engaging, impressive, etc.)…but questionable character integrity and the author’s political coyness rankled with me. That’s not to say everyone should agree 🙂

    Funnily enough, Thomas, I am a writer – my first novel will be released later this year. However, my vocabulary can always do with expanding. I’d love to know what “spirital” means.

  9. rosyb
    March 1, 2009

    Really interested to see your review, Trilby. I was kindly sent a review copy of the UK edition by Gallic books a while ago, but I’ve been humming and hawing about how to review it because I wasn’t sure if my thoughts and feelings were right and still less certain about how to find that out. Interestingly, this review – perhaps because it is quite negative in places – allows me to put my thoughts now more freely, without having to claim expertise.

    I absolutely loved the beginning of this book and the character of the concierge – I loved her and her attitude and her voice.

    I disagree with you quite a bit there.

    You say: “Similarly, there are issues of believability with Renée’s character – and not simply to do with the fact of a woman who left school at twelve being able to engage with Proust and Husserl, expound on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and quote from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. ”

    I know plenty of self-educated people who missed out on institutional education young who know an awful lot more than most of my middle-class university-educated colleagues. So I don’t at all see why you find this evidence of unbelievability.

    You quote the following:

    “To rich people is must seem that the ordinary little people – perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire – experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference.”

    I am also pretty sympathetic to some of Renee’s attitudes and her invisibility is surely two-fold. That she seeks it because she does not totally belong elsewhere – but also that it exists because of the attitudes of those she encounters who assume that she does not engage deeply or intellectually…I think this unpicking of the “ownership” of sophistication and chattering classness is, in fact, very interesting and valid.

    Like you, I struggled with Paloma’s voice and her “essays” – all of which seemed a lot less interesting and engaging than Renee’s sections – to me, anyway.

    But here was my problem when I was thinking of a review – because I did not know to what extent my problems with the book were due to the translation and what to the book itself.

    Paloma’s voice, particularly – but the whole book to some extent – veered uncomfortably (for me) between stilted and over-formal constructions that I simply couldn’t place, and American-style slangy phrases. I found it hard to make sense of how these idioms fitted together and therefore found it hard to make sense of the actual voices – particularly Paloma’s.

    The trouble is that, as I don’t speak French, I was unable to know how much of this might be down to the translation. My hunch was that the translation might have been designed for an American audience and this – combined with the translation of the formal French – lead to a very unnatural-sounding read for me. I would be interested to know how the voices and overall style comes across in the original French to French-speakers.

    Here’s a couple of examples. Renee’s voice says things like “dubbed a dame” and archaic-sounding constructions involving “Alas” “Unbeknownst” “how astonished I was that he might conceive of wanting to marry me” etc.

    Paloma talks of “neatness freak” and having “lucked out” and then says things like this:

    “She has the poor taste to behave in a way that worries everyone. I really don’t need this: a hostile lesion of a sister and the spectacle of all her little woes”

    I enjoy the archaic quality or the otherness of an image like “hostile lesion”. But the problem for me is it doesn’t feel like it fits together – “poor taste to behave” (I would understand bad manners or bad grace but I don’t quite understand how poor taste works in the context of worrying people) the hostile lesion (strange and unparticularised image which leaves me wondering if it’s a common image in French or something more self-consciously literary) along with “the spectacle of all her little woes” (strangely stilted and formal-sounding phrase) and then all the US slangy phrases…I don’t understand how the voice adds up and this became a big problem for me as a reader as I got further and further into the book.

    So, for me, I felt this was an interesting book with unconventional interesting characters, interesting ideas and original use of imagery. But the inconsistency of voice and style stopped me being able to really engage and get through to the essence of this book.

    I feel that this is probably due to the translation itself, but as I can’t read the original I cannot know. I would be interested to know what you think of this and whether any other commenters could enlighten me.

    But, I must say, Trilby, that this review has quite inspired me to go back to the book and have another read. It’s interesting that it is in characterisation (as opposed to voice/style) that you feel the book really falls down as – for me – the best thing is the character of Renee, herself, who I found original and engaging by equal measure.

  10. Trilby
    March 1, 2009

    Gosh, Rosy – that comment really warrants a post unto itself! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you do decide to revisit the book. It would be great to read a counter review at some point.

    Should stress that the first issue of believability that you quote me describing was not, actually, the one that mystified me the most (like you, I know many self-educated people who display superior powers of perception and analysis than those who have been put through university sausage factories!). And I do agree that Rene’s obsession with invisibility – adopted or imposed – is a compelling one.

    “It’s interesting that it is in characterisation (as opposed to voice/style) that you feel the book really falls down” – not at all. Apologies if this wasn’t clear. The thing that irritated me most was voice; specifically, the intrusion of the author’s voice (this is, I think, where Rene’s bitterness creeps in – something which detracted from an otherwise very likable character) and the way in which she manipulates her cast to buttress her arguments (see my final para).

    I’ve not read TEOTH in the French, although the points you raise re. translation make me want to. If anyone has a copy going spare, do please send it along!

  11. jhoney
    March 19, 2009

    Interesting Read! Very detailed blog.
    Thanks for sharing

  12. susanlea
    April 6, 2009

    I am almost finished reading Hedgehog and enjoyed this spirited discussion. I agree with Trilby re: disingenuous ‘voice’ at times, but am finding the book quite compelling. I’m reading it at I hop from Chicago to Japan to Los Angeles to the Pacific northwest. I look forward to it’s company after days filled with peripatetic activity. Susanlea

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  14. Gabriella Gouch
    June 18, 2009

    Trilby

    I think you picking on the weaker aspect of the book, like Paloma’s unbelievable precociousness. While Renee is a working class woman who is subservient to the rich, she in fact represents the outsider. So do not worry about left and right wing politics. Renee could easily found herself in similar situation if the inhabitants of the building would have been of a different race or any other category which our human beings are so talented to invent and impose on each other.

    You have disregarded what the book sais about the meaning of life, the brilliant philosophical references and ruminations, the role of beauty in our lives, the humour, the freshness of writing. You are depriving potential readers of a brilliant and very enjoyable book.

    This book is the best I read for years.
    Gaby

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  19. H. Luria
    April 8, 2011

    The reviewer here made some good points, but failed to deal with the ending, which I feel is flawed: by one of the two central characters being run over by a truck, the ending is so unnecessarily shocking that it detracts from the philosophical issues one should be left thinking about: all one remembers is that the poor woman was slain at the moment of rebirth – how horrible. Also, the book was just too “cute” and contrived, though I enjoyed some of the philosophical issues raised – the kind of B.S. I personally spend too much time thinking about, and this book shed no new light on any of them. Also, the book was too full of Euro chic-isms and discussions of how obscene prices of those chic-isms are.

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2009 by in Entries by Trilby, Fiction in translation, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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