The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French L’Élégance du hérisson by Alison Anderson
Gallic Books, 2009
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I finally read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I had my own little Paris in July while on holiday in England. The weather was fitting too, averaging around 28 degrees celsius.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those books that has been on my TBR list for years. That had been sitting on my shelves for years as well. It would have been a suitable pick for Long-Awaited Reads Month. Rather like the experience with the books I read that month, the long wait did not set me up for disappointment. Instead, I quickly became enamoured with Barbery’s book, as well as with its two main characters – albeit with some reservations.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in and around a grand Parisian apartment building. The main focus of the novel are the every day dealing and particularly the contemplations of the concierge of the building, Renée. Renée has carefully crafted her persona of what she has observed is expected of a concierge, i.e. a person of her education, class, and income. But below the surface, in the sanctum of her home and thoughts, she is someone else – a woman who enjoys art and culture above all. Renée’s story is interspersed with diary-like writings of a 12-year-old girl, Paloma, resident of the building and daughter of one of the rich and superficial major men living in the building. Paloma, aware of the sameness and inescapability of the future ahead of her, a future that she feels can only end in disappointment, plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. However, Renée’s and Paloma’s futures are about to alter through the change in circumstances following the death of one of the residents of the building, and the new resident that comes along: Mr. Ozu.
As I mentioned above, The Elegance of the Hedgehog quickly drew me in. Despite the negative, and sometimes extremely bitter, outlook of both Renée and Paloma, particularly when it comes to their fellow humans, despite what could be perceived as their self-indulgent and self-important contemplations, I quickly fell in love with both voices of Renée and Paloma. Particularly as I saw them changing as persons before my very eyes. Quiet, contemplative, and written in beautiful prose, their stories touched me – even when I did not want to, even if at times I fiercely disagreed with one of their opinions, or if I was wondering whether it wasn’t trying too hard to be intellectual. As to the latter: at times, perhaps, but not nearly as much as Night Train to Lisbon, which I, by the way, also enjoyed although not nearly as much.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Barbery, professor of philosophy, manages to give nods to a lot of great French – and none-French – thinkers and artists. There are hints of Bourdieu, Foucault, Kant, and of course the motif of Tolstoy in the novel, and I am sure many more that I either did not recognise, or do not remember as vividly. These nods – and I call them nods because these are mostly hints, buried in the contemplations of Paloma and Renée as I perceived them, dropping keywords from time to time but never much, except for when it comes to Tolstoy – were enjoyable to me. It became a joy to find fiction and non-fiction interwoven in this manner.
Overall then, I very much enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It came to the point where I enthusiastically told Bas that I was reading two amazing books, at the same time – something I felt had not occurred in a while. I told him that The Elegance of the Hedgehog might very well be the next book I would be able to recommend to anyone, despite taste or preference. And I told him how involved I was in the lives of these characters, how real they felt, even if also a little remote, seeing them mostly through their articulated thoughts, even if I knew they were fictional. Mind you, it is rare that I tell Bas this much about specific books, so this is to illustrate how much I was enjoying it at the time.
That same evening, having picked up the book again to finish it, something changed. The next time Bas looked up from his book and his music, I was crying without restraint. The book had just taken a turn – the surprise ending that came as quite a shock to me – and as I tried to explain to him why I was crying I became puzzled and hesitant about whether this was indeed a book I truly loved. That ending, and those of you who have read it will know what I mean, I still don’t know how to feel about it. Was it the fact that I was so immersed in the story, cared so much about the character, that I hated to see it end like this? Was it because I am that kind of romantic who often prefers happy endings (even if you might argue that this is not an unhappy ending), that the story was directing me in one way and then the next moment pulled the unexpected which hurt my romantic heart? Or was it that I felt cheated by the ending somehow, too much dramatics for the quietude of the overall novel, too big a leap to ensure there was an actual end, cheated by the fact that I so wanted a more meaningful ending somehow – even an unhappy one, just not this.. I don’t know.. cheap and easy trick in some ways?
I suspect it was a combination of all three of these reasons, which were also the reasons it made me cry. And even though I am as yet undecided if the ending was indeed somewhat cheap, or if by the very end, it was quite satisfying, mulling it over I suspect it may take away some of my downright love I felt for the book at moments like the one in which I shared all my thoughts with Bas.
There is also the question of Mr. Ozu – is he enough of a genuine character to take away the question of him being an example of the “exotic, Asian-and-thus-wise-and-unmaterialistic” character trope who intervenes and saves those in need? Or is that only what he is to the other residents, a curiosity, allowed to become a person in the company of Renée and Paloma?
And what about the message of the book? I wondered if it did not become a bit too obvious at points? At the same time, it seems very fitting in today’s day and age of the economy question. And I did appreciate it, overall, just not at certain moments, when I disagreed, or when I almost – and I wish to emphasise the almost as it never really became bothersome – wanted to exclaim “enough already!”
There are doubts to be expressed about The Elegance of the Hedgehog, discussions to be had. I have my own reservations about the book, and yet.. And yet, ultimately I did love it for most of the time while reading it, occasionally I even experienced the swelling of the heart and the contented sigh that will make you feel how truly enjoyable reading can be. I wonder how I’ll look back on my thoughts and appreciation of the book in weeks, or months, or in a year. I wonder if it will hold up on a reread. We will have to wait and see.
[edited to add that I was persuaded to finally begin reading this because I saw a readalong being organised by two bloggers in July. Sadly, I cannot find the URL right now as I am not on my own computer at the moment (which is also the reason that I haven't yet caught up with all your blogs). I will edit it in once found!]
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