Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Certain People have suggested that my susceptibility to this book has something to do with a general fondness for metaphorical hedgehogs more than any inherent merit.

I wrote this a while ago for the Sunday Guardian.

 

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7, Rue de Grenelle is a posh address in Paris, its floors occupied by the wealthy and privileged. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is narrated by two of the inhabitants of this building. Paloma is the brilliant, twelve year old daughter of a politician, and is planning to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. The concierge, Renée Michel, is an autodidact who carefully conceals her intellectual achievements from her tenants. These women’s lives intersect with the arrival of a new tenant, a Japanese man named Mr Ozu.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this book is that it is funny. This is particularly true of the early sections of  that deal largely with class. Renée’s acidic observations about the people in the building are interspersed with tales of her attempts to keep up the façade of the bovine, unintelligent concierge. These are frequently absurd – putting on the T.V. in the front room while watching Japanese films in the back, hiding gourmet food and academic books under turnips in her shopping bags, and cooking hearty, comforting meals to fill the hallway with their smell before feeding them to the cat. The residents of the building bear out Renée’s contempt with their willingness to un-see and un-hear anything that might detract from their impression of the dull Madame Michel.

Renée’s interactions with philosophy are no less entertaining. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been widely praised for this, yet its engagements with different schools of thought are never particularly profound. Instead, it’s a novel that is utterly flippant about philosophy –one that, refreshingly, (the section satirising Transcendental Idealism and Phenomenology is marvellous) assumes a basic understanding in its audience of the subjects satirised by it.

Simultaneously we have the journal entries of twelve-year-old Paloma. We’re invited to see a number of parallels in the two women’s narratives. Both mock the pretensions of the other residents of the building; both profess a fondness for jasmine tea and Japanese art; Paloma mocks upper-class naming conventions for pets and questions the need to have a pet at all, whereas Renée names her cat after Leo Tolstoy.

Barbery’s narrators are not immune to a certain amount of affectionate mocking, but it’s hard to say to what degree this is meant (if that were ever a valid question to ask of a text). Both narrators seem, for instance, to invest the Japanese with a special insight into the human condition. Renée’s conviction of her own uniqueness is undercut early on by the text when she discovers she’s not alone in liking both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. And it seems likely that Paloma’s uncomfortable relationship with her older sister Colombe is as much the product of an ordinary sibling rivalry as it is that of a vast philosophical gulf – particularly when it is punctuated by claims that Colombe plays music too loud and is too picky about cleanliness. What is less clear is how seriously we can take Paloma’s philosophical ventures. There is enough similarity in the intellectual narratives of Madame Michel and Paloma that when Paloma’s thoughts occasionally begin to sound a little too Catcher in the Rye, it becomes hard to see Renée as particularly brilliant either.

The problem carries over to Renée’s relationship with Mr Ozu. This is an almost check-the-boxes romance (it may be a platonic one, but it is a romance nonetheless); they attract each other’s attention over a shared literary reference and wincing at someone else’s bad grammar; they have an awkward moment of toilet humour; he is wealthy enough to buy her pretty clothes and take her to exciting restaurants. It is more literary than Mills and Boon but this plot, and this genre, are unmistakeable. This is in part its undoing. The meeting of minds here is rather undermined by the fact that the quote over which the characters recognise each other is one of the best known in the Western canon. We’re told over and over again that the inhabitants of 7, Rue de Grenelle are well-educated, and that they have a superficial understanding of art, literature and the other markers of culture. Are we really to believe either that none of them could have recognised the line “happy families are all alike”, or that the act of recognising it could be a sign for such complete congruence of tastes? Had any of the other tenants attempted such a romance, Madame Michel would despise it for its triteness.

And yet I do not despise The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renée’s engagement with Anna Karenina will eventually move beyond these superficialities to provide some of the most moving passages in the later parts of the book. For all its flirtation with intellectualism, the book is strongest when at its most unabashedly sentimental; Renée’s last movie outing with her husband (they watched The Hunt for Red October), a troubled young man who finds solace in camellias, Paloma’s final decision regarding her own death. With its coy chapter titles (“The Poodle as Totem”, “The Travails of Dressing Up”, “The Rebellion of the Mongolian Tribes”) the book is almost too self-consciously charming. Yet it is graceful, and warm, and won me over completely.

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