Friday, April 10, 2009

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Right now, my reading is divided primarily between a stack of student essays and, more happily, some guidebooks on London (I'm looking for a decent, affordable place to stay for a few days at the end of May). But a few weeks ago, I discovered a lovely novel -- or perhaps more accurately, it discovered me. At least, there was more serendipity than design in my coming across this real treat of a read -- I was tutoring in our Writing Centre one afternoon, and chatting with another tutor between students. She's also a neighbour on my wee island and we often chat about books, travels, opera and frustrations with Administration. She had just finished reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked me if I'd read it. "No? Well, you should. Here, you can borrow my copy." And I did, and I loved it, and soon I'll not only have my own copy but I'll also be giving it away as birthday and Christmas gifts.

It's the most charming tale (translated, in my edition, from French to English by Alison Anderson -- translators really deserve more credit than they often get, in my opinion) about a concierge employed at a hôtel particulier in the very bourgeois 7th arr. Against all the expectations of her banally bourgeois employers (the inhabitants of the eight luxury apartments at number 7, rue de Grenelle), 54-year old Renée, a "short, ugly, and plump" widow with bunions, as she describes herself, loves Mahler, reads Death in Venice when she's not reading philosophy, has a love of cinema eclectic enough to embrace both "American blockbusters and art-house films," and almost gives herself away by blurting out "You ought to read The German Ideology" in response to "the Pallières boy" and his smug claim about how Marx changed his worldview.
As soon as she makes her impulsive comment, Renée regrets it, because she has built a life around conforming to the image of "what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge . . . old, ugly, sour . . . [with] rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions covered with crocheted cases . . . while [the concierges themselves] watch television interminably" in rooms that "smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup, or a country-style cassoulet." In fact, Renée was hugely relieved at having been forbidden the cooking of her supposedly favourite foods and faked the reluctance of her compliance. She keeps her television on constantly so as to allow the residents their mental image of her sprawled in front of the TV; meanwhile, she's free to hide out in the back room, listening to Mahler, her eyes tear-filled at its beauty, or reading her beloved Tolstoy.

The novel offers twin narratives, one told by Renée and the other told by Paloma, a twelve-year old girl who lives with her family in the building. Her father is a parliamentarian; her mother has a PhD in literature so that she "writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references." Paloma is exceptionally gifted, but not wanting to stand out, knowing her parents would impose exhausting expectations, she works hard to scale back her academic performance, managing to make being first in her class at school seem the result of effort. Paloma has decided, on the available evidence, that life is rather pointless, indeed absurd, and she's resolved to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. But since she recognizes that her assessment might be flawed, she's decided to keep a journal of observations, looking for something that might convince her that life is worth a chance. (I do wish she could have the opportunity to discuss her decision-making with another bright teen girl, equally isolated in her intelligence, and to do so, she'd only have to slip into the pages of Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News)

Just as the reader suspects, these characters eventually pierce each others' veils, getting behind the fronts they present to the rest of the world to build a welcome companiability. Their relationship is enhanced and augmented by the addition of a new tenant, an elegant older Japanese man, Kakuro Ozu, also widowed, who quickly discerns Renée's true worth. I won't tell you more, plot-wise, for fear of spoiling your own enoyment when you (and you must!) read this novel, but I'll share a few of my favourite quotations from it.

First, although it exposes me as a punctuation pedant, I love Renée's rant against the horrid comma she encounters in a note from one of her wealthy tenants, a woman who "sits on the selection committee of a very prestigious publishing house. Here's the offending comma: "Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages . . ." Reading it, Renée declares that she "was not prepared for such an underhanded attack [and] collapsed in shock on the nearest chair" at the "dribbling scribbling on vellum . . . this comma slicing the sentence in half with all the trenchancy of a knife blade." Renée goes on to say that she could easily forgive such an error if it came from someone with less opportunity to have learned the correct punctuation, but considering the source, she has no such patience. As she says, and I'll quote the better part of a paragraph here (and probably trot it out from time to time for my poor students!),
For those who have been favored by life's indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement. Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one's total allegiance. Society's elect, those whom fate has spared from the servitude that is the lot of the poor, must, consequently, shoulder the double burden of worshipping and respecting the splendors of language. Finally, Sabine Pallières's misuse of punctuation constitutes an instance of blasphemy that is all the more insidious when one considers that there are marvelous poets born in stinking caravans or high-rise slums who do have for beauty the sacred respect that it is so rightfully owed.

Clearly, you need another selection to convince you that the novel is as charming as I've claimed -- a rant against poor grammar might not be as endearing as I'd hoped! So I'll leave you with this little anecdote wherein Renée and her friend Manuela, the Portuguese woman who cleans for some of the tenants, are trying to answer Kakuro's request for the "two major inventions of French and British culture." For France, Renée offers "the language of the eighteenth century, and soft cheese," but it's England they really have fun with. Manuela suggests "pooding-ghe," and then, "the roog-eby," to which Renée adds "Habeas corpus and lawns." At this point, their laughter is interrupted by a knocking at the door, which turns out to be Paloma's mother asking to leave her with them for an hour or so. Once they "send [Madame] gracefully on [her] way," and get Paloma comfortably sitting with a cup of jasmine tea and some madeleines, they ask her the same question: "What did the English invent, do you think?" -- and her answer is the best of all: "The hat, as a symbol of stubborn resistance to change."

I know you can't resist a novel that offers such a brilliant line -- you want to see what other lovely aperçus you'll find within its covers. Let me know! Meanwhile, I'll leave you with some images of a favourite bit of Paris graffiti, found, surprisingly, not too far from 7 rue de Grenelle. Below, you can just see the image, above and slightly to the left of the car; a close-up view is just below.


  1. I just loved your description/review of this novel, especially the part about the errant comma. Thank you - you've give me a book to look for next time the stack on my bedside table dwindles!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed my review of this book, Tiffany, and I'm confident you'll enjoy the book itself. And I'm so glad so stopped by and commented.

  3. Materfamilias: this sounds like an enchanting novel, and I will look for it. Thank you! I enjoyed your review very much and will come back to your blog. I always wanted, in another life, to be a literature teacher. I also appreciate you visiting my blog this week, and hope you're having a lovely weekend.

    (My parents live not far from you, I believe, in the San Juan Islands of Washington. Beautiful area you're in!)


  4. Sallymandy: Delighted you could stop by -- I've recently discovered your blog and I like it very much.
    I've never yet got to the San Juan Islands, but often hear from my boating friends how charming they are. And yes, we're lucky to be in such a beautiful area.

  5. Punctuation pedants unite!! You have nothing to lose. I am reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog and am just past the comma section. I googled "muriel barbery comma" to see if the text had made it to the internet and found your blog entry.

  6. Welcome, Sherman, and thanks for directing my attention back to this entry, which I made well over a year ago, and to this passage which I'd somehow forgotten. I'm thinking now that it's worth copying out for my 1st-year students to read -- might as well frighten them away on the very first day of classes next week, eh?

    I've had a quick glance at your blog, and have bookmarked it for future visits -- some lovely architecture you've been cataloguing there . . . as for cataloguing, my daughter is a librarian, also in an academic setting, but she works in digitisation of special collections, etc.

    And I like your idea of reading Barbery's work in the original -- I'll have to scout 'round for a copy.