Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I would say this book is "very French." There is such fixation on class differences, and while very little happens in terms of plot, the book is stuffed to the gills with meditations on what makes art beautiful, the role of literature in society, the nature of cultural displacement on violence in society, the fundamental error of Husserl's phenomenology, and on and on.

The two alternating narrators are Renee Michelle, the widowed concierge of a glamorous apartment building in Paris, and Paloma Joss, the 12 year old daughter of one of the families living in the building. Both have untempered disdain for everyone else in the building, but they don't actually know each other until late in the book.

What little plot there is concerns the arrival of a new resident, a 60-ish Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu, who sees the intelligence hiding behind Mme. Michelle's facade, as well as Paloma's loneliness. The concierge begins to bloom under M. Ozu's attentions and as a narrator begins to lose her defensive prickliness -- which is the metaphor expressed in the title.

I am admittedly surprised that this has become such a successful book here in the US, as so many of the issues of class and privilege don't resonate here in quite the way they do in France. Mme. Michelle puts out a great deal of effort to appear to be a "real concierge;" she leaves the TV on all day, she buys horrible food which she actually feeds to her cat, she behaves as though she is both stupid and stubborn. Actually she doesn't watch the TV, she hides her real food underneath the horrible stuff, and she reads and thinks with ferocious avidity. She is authentic, however, in her dislike of everyone in her building and their privilege, although it's not clear for most of the book if there is any reason for her fury. Most of the people are thoughtless or unpleasant, but I found them to be predominantly lost themselves and mostly pathetic.

After all, none of them treats her badly; the worst thing that any one of them does is Paloma's older sister who rings the bell of the loge at 7 a.m. instead of waiting until 8 when the loge is officially open. Mme. Michelle had been out late the night before, drinking sake with M. Ozu, so she was particularly irritated by it, but in the universe of bad behavior it's pretty negligible.

No, most of Mme. Michelle's hatred of her employers seems to be projection--her own assumption of what they think about her. Frankly, if this spiky woman worked in my building, I'd be desperate to respect the privacy she so obviously wants! Not because I think I'm "better" than she is, or because I didn't think she could understand my deep thoughts, but because I was afraid I might leave her with less than all ten fingers I started with.

This got to me toward the end of the book especially hard. She is going out to dinner with M. Ozu, dressed up and made up like she doesn't ordinarily do. She's even gone to a hair dressers for the first time in her life, when they meet two of the women of the building. To her amazement, the women don't recognize her. M. Ozu claims it is because they have never actually looked at her to see her properly. But, honestly, how empathetic has Mme. Michelle ever been to them either? Has she ever tried to see them for who they really are, to see what their joys and sorrows have been? Of course not.

The second narrator is Paloma Joss the younger daughter of one of the families in the building. Her father is in the government, her mother is apparently deeply bored and passes much time in psychotherapy, and her older sister is a student in one of the best schools in Paris. Paloma hates them all and has decided that being an adult is so horrible that she will kill herself on her 13th birthday, just after setting fire to the apartment building. In the interim, she will keep journals and see if she can find any reason not to carry out her plan.

Paloma as a character is hard to swallow. I am not certain if her "Journal of Profound Thoughts" is supposed to actually be profound, or just the kind of "profound" that one would expect from a twelve year old. Nor did I ever believe she was going to kill herself or set fire to the building. If this were anything more than a plot device imposed by Barbery, said twelve year old would have spent some time planning. Exactly how was she going to do this thing? Sure, she swiped some of her mother's pills, but was she going to take them the night before her birthday so she would be found the next morning, or was she going to take them in front of everybody, or hide them in the birthday cake, or what? Surely a girl planning to commit a statement suicide would plot what she was going to where, how she would be found, as well as imagine the satisfaction of the family's reaction to her death.

Even less believable was the idea of burning down the apartment building. There was really no plan at all. Was she going to take a kitchen match to some carpeting maybe? Before of after she took the pills? No, the whole "die before I get old" was just never going to happen. Sure, she found her family to be annoying and intrusive; it's practically a developmental stage.

I will not attempt to distinguish myself by weighing in on the philosophical musings of the two women, as honestly, I just trudged through those parts of the book. Not that they were worthless; it's just that I don't enjoy philosophy. I'm kind of tone deaf to it, I think, or something, because I didn't particularly care one way or another about Mme. Michelle's views on Husserl or Marx, and her disquisition on the subject of Dutch still life went in one ear and out the other.

I did object to her dismissal of Paloma's sister's paper on William of Ockham, though. After all, I, the reader, have just spent valuable hours of my life hearing your thoughts on all sorts of things that were hardly personally useful--the habits of your bladder, for one. I'm sorry you don't care for Ockham's thought, but is it really completely without any worth whatsoever? Surely there are plenty of "thinkers" who are more obscure and less worthy of study--she could have been a student of romance novels or something even more disposable. At least she is trying--just like you are. Show a little compassion for people; you certainly demand it for yourself.

And the end. The end! Fortunately I had Googled the book and knew to expect it, although I might have figured it out anyway. I kept thinking about Virigina Woolf's comment (as delivered by Nicole Kidman in "The Hours") that someone has to die so the rest of us can see how precious life is. And it was never going to be Paloma.

Yes, Renee Michelle dies, hit by a dry cleaning truck, just as she has started to soften up and behave like a human being. Maybe she and M. Ozu would have married. Maybe not, but maybe she would have learned how to be her true self and be a happier person. But no.

Although I have to give Barbery some credit, as Mme. Michelle's last thoughts are quite interesting and the whole idea of narrating what happens while a person dies was an intriguing and daring risk to take. And, of course, it is Mme. Michelle's death which convinces Paloma not to kill herself, so there is that silver lining as well.

While looking up other reviews of this book--to see if I could figure out why this has been such a successful phenomenon, I came across a delightful and persuasive critique here.

In the end, did I like this? No, not much, but then it's not really the type of book I enjoy. I'm not someone who reads philosophy for fun, just as I don't do well with non-fiction. Mostly it's because there are so many other types of books I enjoy more, and I'd rather be reading those. It's a classic line, because it works: "It's not you, it's me." It's probably more a failure on my part than on the book's part, for whatever that is worth.

On balance, I wouldn't recommend it because I didn't enjoy it. If I had a friend who adored philosophy, I'd mention it. It's not an easy read, although the philosophy is deliberately accessible, but you have to want to read philosophy to really enjoy this book.

Finally, a note on the audio book. Yes, I listened rather than read this one, and so I devoted more hours to it than I would have if I had simply read it. On the other hand, I listened while doing other things, so I didn't lose as much time to it than I would have if I had to sit and concentrate on it alone. The readers were very good, especially Barbara Rosenblatt as Mme. Michelle--but then something about Barbara Rosenblatt's voice holds a secret smile, as though she is about to tell you a really good joke, which lightened the tone of the bitterness.

What will probably live on for me, however, is the beauty of French. Sure, the author's name is "Muriel Barbery," but when pronounced in the French way, it's a beautiful name. Muh-ree-EL Bahr-buhr-REE. Much more elegant, and worth the price of the download itself.

1 comment:

Minnie said...

I suspect this might be another case of 'traduttore traditore', as I loved the book in the original French. Paloma reminded me of the early parts of the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, which paint a vivid picture of a highly gifted and unusually focused child (who grew into a highly gifted and ...).
The novel has been turned into a film, which was well-received here, starring Josiane Balasko (reliably excellent actress); haven't seen it myself, but you might prefer it in cinematic form?