Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" explores matters of taste

I don’t drink tea. I drink coffee. I like dogs, not cats; prefer the country to the city; newspapers to philosophical texts and irreverence to elegance.
That said, Hedgehog is an elegant little book bristling with ideas that almost won me over.
 Hedgehog is alternately told in the form of journal entries by Renee Michel and Paloma Josse, two residents of a building of luxury apartments at 7, rue de Grenelle, Paris.
            Renee, age 54, is the concierge for the eight families that live there.
She looks like a concierge.  Acts like a concierge.  Sounds like a concierge.  She even used to smell like a concierge.
She self describes as short, ugly and plump with bunions. She has a large lolling cat named Leo. She runs a television all day to conform to the resident’s’ expectations but seeks silence and solitude, books, music and movies in her back room.  She uses plain language when speaking to her employers, but high rhetoric when writing. She used to cook stinky dishes like cabbage soup until a first floor occupant complained, and she was relieved of the necessity of that deception. An autodidact and aesthete, she conceals intellectual passion and disdain for the rich by conforming to the stereotype of her profession. And she writes things like this:  
            “This afternoon Monsieur Arthens is wearing a large polka-dot lavaliere that is too loose on his patrician neck and does not suit him at all: the abundance of his leonine mane and the floppiness of the silk cloth conspire to create a sort of vaporous tutu, causing the gentleman to forfeit his customary virility. Confound it, that Lavaliere reminds me of something. I almost smile as it comes back to me. It’s Legrandin, and his lavaliere. In “Remembrance of Things Past,” the work of a certain Marcel, another notorious concierge, Legrandin is a snob who is torn between two worlds, his own and the one he would like to enter: he is a most pathetic snob whose lavaliere expresses his most secret vacillations between hope and bitterness, servility and disdain.”
            She may inhabit the loge, but Renee lives in her head – and has a great deal in common with Legrandin.
She’s not alone. Upstairs, Paloma, age 12, a spoiled but brilliant little rich girl at the height of adolescent cynicism raves on about the limitations of adults, the vulgarity of French cuisine, the nastiness of others, the limitations of psychoanalysis and how dreadful and annoying her older sister is. Like Renee, she also dumbs down so as not to attract too much attention. So pointless and terrible is the adult world that Paloma dramatically declares she never wants to enter it. On her 13th birthday, she plans to kill herself and set fire to the building. In the meantime she writes in her two journals: one titled “Profound Thoughts” and the second, “Journal of the Movement of the World.” In writing she seeks a reason for changing her mind about suicide.
            Separated by floors and social class, Renee and Paloma often observe the same scenes and comment on similar topics: social class, dogs and cats, the food critic, etc. Both drink tea and are attracted to Japanese culture.  While Renee privately swoons over the movies of arthouse director Ozu and the tea ceremony, Paloma reads manga and studies Japanese.
As if by magic, into their limited worlds steps a real Japanese man, a man of taste, who sees them for what they both really are and finally brings them together.
The new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, has the right name for and starts out on the right foot with the crotchety concierge when he displays a mutual love for the great literature of Tolstoy. He deciphers the origin of Renee’s cat’s name, Leo, as if it s a secret code; even better, he, too, has named his cats after characters in Tolstoy.
Paloma confirms his suspicions that the concierge is not what she seems; Paloma’s the one who describes Renee as the book’s title does: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quill, a real fortress, 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.”
Soon Renee and Kakuro discover they share a love for the same music – Mozart -- and finally this book takes a turn for the better. Their adventures in trading new cultural icons confirm their pact.
Labeled elsewhere as a philosophical fable or a novel with a series of essays, Hedgehog’s cross-genre writing is part of its appeal. I find it also has a lot in common with fairy tales. Renee’s metamorphosis is as transformative as that of any frog to prince.  Or one can look at it as an intellectual Cinderella featuring a middle-aged dumpy concierge.
I enjoyed the last third of the book -- the part in which that transformation happens. All the intellectual ruminating was too pretentious, too tedious for my taste. I could get my mind to go there – but it kept telling me it was time to take a walk. Hedgehog is one of those books I take more pleasure in having read and thinking about than reading.
Paloma’s philosophical quest may be simply to find what makes life worth living. Renee’s forays into problems of existence and aesthetics include Kant, Edmund Husserl, and William of Ockham. As appropriate to cross-genre writing, there are multiple lovely connections between philosophy explored and characters’ considerations.
For example, Ockham –the medieval Franciscan friar best known for his philosophical razor -- discusses metaphysical universals and specifics. Is a table just a table in its singularity or is there also an essence?  How do we know that a table is a table?  (Or a concierge is really a concierge?) You get the point. It’s just not enough to make up for the preciousness of Renee’s chauvinism.
What I will most fondly take away from this book is the confirmation of the magic that happens when you discover there’s someone out there who adores the same cultural touchstones you do. (In a snob’s case it’s even better if it’s esoteric enough that it isolates you.) When you discover your soul mates, you can form your own cult of cultural beings.
Anyone out there have suggestions for great, heavily plotted, irreverent novels with dogs and coffee that take place in the country?

This review also appears at http://europachallenge.blogspot.com. I am participating in the Europa Challenge.


  1. I too liked parts (mostly the back half) of Elegance of a Hedgehog. I agree with your thoughts about it; see http://www.thecuecard.com/node/679.
    Your question at the end of your review ... makes me think of Pam Houston's books a bit.

    1. I don't know Pam Houston's books. I just looked them up online; they look interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I really struggled with this one when I tried it a few years ago. Ultimately I laid it aside as I found it a little too pretentious for my taste. I've thought about revisiting it, but I usually pick something else and move on forward.

    1. Your reading minutes are too precious at this time in your life for you to read anything that isn't 100 percent wonderful for you. I'm very taken with the Europa Challenge -- my first challenge ever, and I have lots of time for a few more weeks.