For the Books on France 2014 reading challenge I’m once again returning to the French capital, more precisely to an old palatial dwelling of eight upper-middle class families in one of the most elegant quarters of modern Paris. However, the novel deals with most of the inhabitants only indirectly because despite their money they have nothing special about them. The real focus of the story is on the concierge who isn’t at all the dull old woman that she pretends to be and on a well-to-do girl of twelve who considers adult life devoid of every meaning. Of course, the book that I decided to review today is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, one of my favourites.
Muriel Barbery was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in May 1969. After her university studies in France she taught philosophy for several years, but her husband encouraged her to start writing fiction. In 2000 the French novelist made her acclaimed debut with The Gourmet (Une Gourmandise; also translated as Gourmet Rhapsody). Six years later she brought out The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L’élégance du hérisson: 2006) which was an even bigger success and sold so well that it allowed the timid writer to take a break from teaching and to escape from the media pressure. Since 2008 Muriel Barbery lives in Kyōto, Japan, with her husband.
The main scene of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the concierge’s home and working place at 7 rue de Grenelle in Paris. Fifty-four-year-old Renée Michel has been taking care of the building for half of her life. At first sight Madame Michel matches every cliché of a French concierge: she is short, ugly and plump, she is slow, she cooks smelling plain food, she has the TV running all day long and she has a fat cat called Leo. Beneath the surface, however, she is quite extraordinary. Although she didn’t receive much formal education, she is very well-read – she adores the work of Leo Tolstoy, notably Anna Karenina, and has a penchant for philosophy – and she has a fervent love for the arts, especially Japanese art-house films. In public she always takes great care to hide her knowledge and good taste because she believes that it makes life easier and safer for her to keep her distance to the rich… and to stay in her place. On the fifth floor lives Paloma Josse, the highly intelligent and introspective daughter of a Member of Parliament, who – like Renée Michel – tries her best not to attract any attention. She has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday in June because she can’t bear the idea of turning into an empty and snobbish adult like everyone around her, like her mother and her elder sister Colombe in particular. She also has taken the resolution to make good use of the remaining months to keenly observe her surroundings and to see if she can discover something worth living for after all. In the meantime she keeps a diary with “Profound Thoughts” and a “Journal of the Movement of the World”. When Kakuro Ozu, a widowed Japanese businessman in his sixties, moves into one of the flats, the dull façade of the concierge begins to crumble. Unlike the other inhabitants of the building he sees Renée Michel, the intriguing person, instead of just Madame Michel, the dull concierge. And well-trained by her previous observations Paloma too begins to suspect that like a hedgehog Madame Michel hides a “fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant” soul under her coat of deterrent quills. Kakuro and Paloma teach Renée that the beauty of life and the connections with the world are all that count in the end.
The main first-person narrator of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Renée Michel, but her account alternates with the diary entries of Paloma Josse which are set in a different, more modern typeface. Apart from the budding love story between the concierge and the Japanese art-lover in the second half of the novel, there isn’t much of a plot. Days in the bourgeois residence just take their usual and mostly insignificant course which perfectly mirrors the void of its inhabitants’ stereotypical and strikingly class-conscious, not to say hypocritical lives. Thanks to it Renée Michel and the people taking a true interest in her – the Portuguese cleaner Manuela who is her only friend, Paloma and Kakuro – stand out even more against them. The author seems also to have given the names of her main protagonists much thought. Paloma is Spanish for “dove” which corresponds with the girl’s character, while her sister Colombe (French for “dove”) can well be seen as her older self, the young woman who she may be one day. As for Renée, when she comes out of her shell at last and opens up to Paloma and Kakuro, she is “reborn” as her name indicates. Throughout the novel Renée and Paloma indulge in philosophical reflections on the nature of beauty and the meaning of life which are interspersed with numerous references to important works of philosophy, literature (notably Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy) and different arts. Even the title may allude to an essay on Tolstoy, namely The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin, although otherwise there is hardly any obvious connection. Muriel Barbery took special care to apply the findings of modern philosophy to everyday life and succeeded quite well in making them accessible to a less expert reader. As a result the author’s style is rather essayistic which prevents it from being a particularly easy read and yet doesn’t diminish at all the charm of the story.
All things considered, I can say that I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery – when I first read it a couple of years ago and now again. In my opinion it’s the perfect novel for everybody with a philosophical vein, with a comprehensive interest in the arts and with a certain weakness for Japan. I hope that you’ll enjoy the book as much as I did!