Today’s book review is brought to you by Beryl Belsky of The Writer’s Drawer.
Synopsis of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008)
Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renee: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renee lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turn moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007 with sales of over 900,000 copies to-date
Among the first things I learnt about Muriel Barbery were that she lived in Kyoto, Japan, in the years 2008-9, and that she and her husband Stéfane Barbery have been captivated by Japanese culture for well over a decade. As she said in an April 2009 interview with Times Union freelance writer Elizabeth Floyd Mair:
Our fascination began mostly as an aesthetic one, and has remained so: we are fascinated by the ability to create pure beauty, at the same time refined and pure; the kind of thing you see in the slow, sweet sumptuousness of [Yasijiro] Ozu’s films, in the splendor of the Japanese gardens, in the discreet sophistication of ikebana …
This intrigue is woven both subtly and directly into her book The Elegance of the Hedgehog,[i] which she dedicates to Stéfane, and who, it turns out, also cooperated in writing it.
Both Renée Michel and Paloma Josse, the two main characters in the book, have a “Japanese side.” Renée is the concierge in a luxury apartment block in Paris. Superficially, she is the typical concierge, a drab, dour widow who lives alone in the small lodge allotted to such French “institutions” in the building. Underneath, however, she is an autodidact, a lover of Tolstoy and of Japanese aesthetics, which she has absorbed from watching numerous Ozu films.
Paloma, a 12-year-old girl living with her upper middle class, socialist parents on the fifth floor, is also hiding a secret: her super-intelligence and her decision to kill herself when she reaches her 13th birthday. In the meantime, she searches for meaning to life by keeping two journals, one of “Profound Thoughts,” with each “thought” prefaced by a verse in Japanese haiku (3 lines) or tanka (5 lines), and the other of “the Movement of the World,” about “masterpieces of matter.” For light entertainment, she reads Japanese manga comics (she is studying Japanese at school).
The thread that connects these two complex characters is Kakuro Ozu, who purchases an apartment in the building. (Interestingly, the apartment is sold to him after the death of Monsieur Arthens, the food critic, who appears in Barbery’s first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody.) Ozu suspects that Renée is not the uncultured person she pretends to be and shares his suspicions with Paloma. In her journal of “Profound Thoughts,” Paloma writes:
I’ve had my own suspicions on the matter for a while now too… I’ve been watching her. .. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she’s covered in quills… but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary ‒ and terribly elegant.
Renée is equally, but cautiously fascinated by Kakuro, and learns from him that he is distantly related to the filmmaker Yasijiro Ozu. When she discusses her feelings about life with the reader (her thoughts and Paloma’s journals are typeset in different fonts), you can see the extent to which she has been influenced by Ozu’s films. When drinking tea with her friend Manuela, the cleaner, for example, she ruminates:
Today, because our ritual has been transgressed, it suddenly acquires all its power; we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savour it, lower our cups, serve more and sip again: every gestures has the bright aura of rebirth.
Later, she discusses the Japanese use of space, which impressed her from the first Ozu film she saw, Flavour of Green Tea over Rice. She compares the closed or open door, which “disrupts continuity of movement, without offering anything in exchange other than freedom of movement,” with Japanese sliding doors, “which avoid such pitfalls and enhance space.”
Her first visit to Kakuro’s apartment she compares to summer rain following a lifetime of daily toil:
… pure beauty striking the summer sky, awe-filled respect absconding with your heart, a feeling of significance at the very heart of the sublime, so fragile and swollen with the majesty of things, trapped, ravished, amazed by the bounty of the world.
In her struggles to find some meaning to life, at least intellectually, Paloma, too, is an observer and a philosopher. Her thoughts about cats, for example, she introduces with the haiku,
The cat here on earth
And intermittently decorative
Following an incident at the dinner table in which she corrects one of her parents’ guests about the origins of the game go, which he attributes to Japan instead of China, she writes angrily ‒ referring to her own imminent death ‒ the tanka:
A conversation with Kakuro about the works of Tolstoy, a love of which he shares with Renée, inspires her to write a haiku about the birch trees he describes in War and Peace:
Teach me that I am nothing
And that I am deserving of life.
This precocious child, who understands that others see her as a brat, also wonders whether she is not turning into a “contemplative aesthete, with “major Zen tendencies.” Having witnessed the fall of a rosebud from a broken stem onto the kitchen counter, she observes:
In that split second, while seeing the stem and the bud drop onto the counter, I intuited the essence of Beauty… a calm mind, lovely roses, a rosebud dropping… It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment when you see both their beauty and their death.
I will not give too much away about this book, which deserves a second and possibly even a third reading to appreciate its multiple layers and views of life, not to mention its biting humor. And despite all the philosophizing, there is a story line. There is no doubt in my mind that Muriel Barbery, who is herself a professor of philosophy, wrote this book partly as a way to set down, in essay form, her own thoughts, which are strongly influenced by Japanese aesthetics, as well as to mock “high” bourgeois intellectualism and academic pretentions. Renée and Paloma are the ideal vehicles for this task; Kakuro is the catalyst who discerns their “Japanese side,” draws them out and leads them to understand that they are not alone in the world, but three kindred spirits. Whether the book ends on a tragic note because Barbery understands that Kakuro’s and Renée’s feelings for one another cannot go any further in a society where class boundaries continue to constrict, only she can say. But Paloma has the final word and in it there is hope and redemption.
Finally, a word should be said about the translation. Translation is an art in itself, and credit should be given to Alison Anderson for her excellent and nuanced work. A novelist herself, she deserves a place among lauded translators such as Maureen Freely, who interpreted the complex works of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk so brilliantly, and Nicholas de Lange, who has produced from the Hebrew wonderfully fluent English renditions of several of the classic works of Israeli author Amos Oz.
[i] Originally, L’élégance du hérisson (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2006).
This review was originally posted on http://www.thewritersdrawer.net/barbery.html.
Beryl Belsky is a graduate in East Asian studies (Japanese) and political science from the Australian National University, and works as an academic editor.
She was born in Eire, grew up in Australia, and currently lives in Israel.
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