“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson,
© 2008 Europa Editions, New York, N.Y. 325 pages
Sometimes it matters how you came to pick a book to read – perhaps you were
1. mindlessly browsing in a bookstore, or urgently searching in the library for something to read before rushing home, read a page or two and said yes, this one;
2. or maybe you ordered online or on the phone because someone told you it’s a must read and you couldn’t wait to get to it;
3. or you read a brilliant review that spoke to you personally.
For me and the book mentioned above, it was none of these. Number 1 would not have worked for me, I think not for anyone. I’ll tell you why later. Number 2 might work for some, depending on who one’s friends are. And number 3 is a faint possibility, depending on how vulnerable one is to brilliant reviews. I confess, I sometimes succumb to truly brilliant writing.
I didn’t pick this book at all. It comes with a completely different story; one of my favourite Americans told me his wife, who is an ardent francophile, was reading this book in French with her French book club and asked if I had read it. When I said I had never heard of it, he was surprised, not only because I live in Montreal where French is the language of choice if not necessity, but because “millions of copies have been sold world-wide” and a movie has been made of it.
“And what is it about?” I asked humbly. To the best of my recollection, he said it was a novel and it was very philosophical. Say no more, I’m there!
The library had two copies, both in French, and both were out. I asked my most literate French friend if she had read it, and she had never heard of it either, nor , she reported later, had any of her friends. Nevertheless, being an adventurous sort, she went out and bought a copy and delivered it immediately into my hands. She was into several other good reads at the moment and so she offered me the chance to be first at it.
I tried. I put it down. I tried again. I could not understand a word. That is, I did know most of the words, but the sentences, the thoughts I didn’t understand at all. And it didn’t seem worth the struggle. I kept the book a long time, trying intermittently to get into it, and finally I gave up and gave it back to my friend.
Then one day browsing in the English section of the library, there was the English translation. I took it home. I began at the beginning: “Marx (Preamble)” in which one of the book’s two narrators, Renée, concierge in a Parisian upper middle class building, has a brief exchange with the Pallières boy , whom she describes as the “prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty,…the son of one of my eight employers.” (If you fear I am giving away too much, we are so far not yet at the end of line five.)
It is, however, line six, that stopped me cold. “There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite – ….)
Eructation? A word I have never seen or heard before in my entire life? I didn’t understand the French? This is supposed to be English! Yes, in fact it is. It is a noun whose first known use, (and perhaps its last) was in the 15th century. I assume its presence, so close to the top of the very first page, is a needlessly heavy-handed way of alerting the reader to the fact that this concierge is no simple-minded person. She is not a person. low-born though she may be, who would even think of saying “belch”, or even “burp”, when she means to describe this boy as the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite….
Does it put one off to be assaulted in this way? Yes, but….something draws one back. Madame la concierge knows words you may never have heard of, she knows the philosophy of Karl Marx, she knows what she knows is more than her employers would ever dream of giving her credit for, and that’s fine with her. She doesn’t want them to know – she scorns them big time. The lines are long-drawn in French culture – she will not cross them and she will not give them reason to believe they would find anything interesting on her side. She is a 54 year old widow who wants to be secure in her little domain with her cat, her books, her music, her thoughts, her philosophy. So she literally walks the walk in her scuffy slippers, and talks the talk (except when she forgets herself for one moment with the Pallieres boy) of the “traditional” French concierge.
You have to admit, this is kind of strange. So, mixed with the irritation there is a mystery, or perhaps, more mildly, a nagging question – why? Why is she doing this? What’s going on here?
In the second part of the brief Preamble we are introduced to the other narrator – a twelve year old girl who lives with her parents and older sister in this very building. In her own voice she tells us how intelligent she is, – “very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent.” But just like Renée, the concierge she scarcely notices, she also makes every effort to disguise herself. “an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace -” she explains. She has every reason to keep her secret. She is as bitter and biting in her assessment of the people she lives among, her parents, her sister, the others in the building, on the planet, as Renée, but she does not intend to become one of them. She does not intend to live the life of an adult. She is no Peter Pan – she will not stay a child. She is determined to commit suicide on the last day of school in June, which happens to be the day she turns thirteen.
This is no minor irritation. One has to decide right here – yes we are still at the very beginning – if one wishes to go through this. If I were reading a review of this book and it said just this, I would say no thank you, good bye. Even if it were brilliantly written. And so you may as well.
So there you have it – the basis of a book called “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” – two people, very different in age, in station in life – very much the same in their ability to think deeply about life, in their inability to NOT think deeply. It weighs very heavily – we cannot bear their scorn, their bitterness. Their acute sensibilities, what they see in other people, how they see contemporary life – all this leaves them so alone – we cannot entirely turn our backs. We look away and turn back to see if they are all right. Perhaps we see ourselves, our own dark view of life as we know it.
We put the book down – and we pick it up again. I am certain several million of those “millions sold world-wide” have never been picked up again, and that’s a pity. The concierge and the child, each speaking in her own voice in more or less alternate chapters, scatter jewels of wisdom on these pages. Call it philosophy if you will. Sometimes it glistens, sometimes it comforts, sometimes it makes us smile.
Renée has found ingenious ways to live disguised in the role of the “typical French concierge” while secretly listening to Mahler or watching Death in Venice on her second tv, the one passersby cannot see - she is “perfectly euphoric,…[her] eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art“.
Paloma, the child, does not intend “to vegetate like some rotting piece of cabbage” between now and next June. Rather she has set as her goal “to have the greatest number possible of profound thoughts, and to write them down…formulated like a little Japanese poem: either a haiku (three lines) or a tanka (five lines).” Each of her chapters supports the simple lines of the poem at the top with some bittersweet observations.
Eventually these two who do not see each other find each other, recognize each other, and instantly respect one another’s secrets profoundly. They cross lines without intrusions. But this relationship is almost “off-stage” – it is not what the book is about. Another relationship evolves and it changes everything. It changes the light, it changes the air, it changes the people, all the people in the building. They breath and grow.
Reading the book on the way home from MKE the second time, I was very close to the ending. I was able to breath, I was comfortable in Renée’s story. abandoning for the moment the sadness of my own. Paloma’s fate no longer worried me.
I read the final pages the next day on a city bus on the way to an appointment.
I was in tears, whether from happiness or sorrow, I will not say. I closed the book. I felt bereft.
I tried to take responsibility. Was I thinking about the sister I had just lost? It’s me. My vulnerable state. It didn’t work. I felt betrayed, manipulated. In the last few pages I saw the author. She shouldn’t have been there. I didn’t want to see her. There is a failure there. When you see the author, you have lost the people. They are no longer real. On the first few pages I had seen the translator. I had wondered why on earth she would choose a word like “eructation” – later, without having seen the French word (I certainly did not remember if from my early attempts to get through the French version), I assumed the author made her do it! The author, her editor, her publisher, certainly the marketing department — I saw a lot of heavy hands in there.
Am I cynical? Am I bitter? Can a “philosophical novel” sell millions of copies world wide? The library that had two copies in French when I searched for it several months ago, today has three in hardcover, six in soft cover, in addition to two in English, one in Italian, and one in German – all “out”! Am I just peeved because I didn’t like the ending?
No, the author stole those people from me. She showed her hand. She pulled a fast one. The ending was made for the movie. My literate French friend was way ahead of me – she found herself wondering before she got to the end how the author could possibly end it,
I took the book back to the library. It was two days late. I paid the fine. And then I ordered a copy of my own from Strand Books in New York. I thought it was going to be a used copy, but it arrived looking brand new. Like no one had read it, certainly not beyond the first few pages.
©Elaine A. Zimbel 2010
Posted in Book Reviews