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I’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.
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.
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