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The Elegance of the Hedgehog
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B : has some appeal, but annoyingly simplistic and reductive
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
There are two narrators in The Elegance of the Hedgehog: the concierge at 7, rue de Grenelle, a fifty-four-year old widow named Renée Michel, and Paloma Josse, the twelve-year old daughter one of the wealthy families living in the house.
They share some common traits, most notably that they are very intelligent -- and that they're doing their best to hide that fact.
Even now, if you look at children my age, there's an abyss. And since I don't really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family -- an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment's peace -- I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior in college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.But she's willing to make the effort, as that's still apparently preferable to the alternative. And at least she has some fun plans for the future: taking pre-pubescent ennui to all extremes she's decided that on her thirteenth birthday, 16 June, she will set fire to her parents' apartment (when she knows no one will be there) and then commit suicide. The adults around her have set such a bad example -- the hollow falsity, all the absurdities -- that she wants to get out while she still can, fearing that even she will succumb to the inanity that contemporary life appears to be if she sticks around. Meanwhile, however, she tries hard to have and collect 'Profound Thoughts', and she also keeps a 'Journal of the Movement of the World' -- her parts of the novel.
And so we have an upstairs-downstairs sort of alternating narrative -- except that both voices have little but contempt for the privileged class. And each of the women has that 'elegance of the hedgehog':
on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent creature, fiercely solitary -- and terribly elegant.The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a meaning-of-life book, but instead of focussing on the child who fears becoming part of the odious adult world it centres on the old woman whom life has largely passed by. Paloma learns her lessons, of course, but the central figure is the concierge. And the root of her problems, as Barbery sets it out, makes for a bizarre social critique that has some superficial appeal but is presented much too simplistically (and extremely).
The novel begins, appropriately enough, with one of the young sons of one of the households -- "the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate élite" -- proclaiming to Renée:
"Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,"She doesn't laugh in his face (or slap him), even as she is certain that he spoke: "without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to", his words the patronizing sort of attention that's the best that the lower classes can expect. But she can't completely restrain herself:
"You ought to read The German Ideology," I told him. Little cretin in his conifer green duffle coat.She fears she's giving her erudition away, but, of course, the lad draws a blank -- it's so inconceivable to him that the concierge should know anything about Marx (much less more than he does) that he can't react.
This encounter sets the tone for The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is, more than anything, about class -- and, specifically, the failures of the privileged classes. Yes, Renée sees herself not just as an autodidact but speaks of her: "condition as a proletarian autodidact". Meanwhile, the house she watches over is filled with vacuous wealthy people. Paloma is certainly disappointed in her parents: her father is a socialist parliamentarian (though, of course, only nominally socialist), while her mother has a Ph.D. in literature (but, of course, far less understanding of or love for books than the lowly concierge ...). By chance, Renée gets hold of a Paloma's sister's master's thesis, about William of Ockham -- and finds herself, of course, "filled with dismay" -- allowing her to vent about French higher education (and who is bearing the costs):
Granted, the young woman has a fairly efficient way with words, despite her youth. But the fact that the middle classes are working themselves to the bone, using their sweat and taxes to finance such pointless and pretentious research leaves me speechless. Every gray morning, day after gloomy day, secretaries, craftsmen, employees, petty civil servants, taxi drivers and concierges shoulder their burden so that the flower of French youth, duly housed and subsidized, can squander the fruit of all that dreariness upon the altar of ridiculous endeavors.Rants like that might even play to American audiences -- though it's a bit rich of Renée to complain about the middle class working themselves to the bone, since her descriptions of her job certainly make it sound very cushy. It's unclear how well she's paid -- presumably not very -- , but she certainly has a hell of a lot of free time to pursue her own interests, and other than having to tolerate the condescension of her employers it seems like a great position. Of course, it's the condescension which she bears as such a burden, playing the martyr role to the hilt -- despite the fact that she's largely taken it on herself. Certainly, her talents are, in a sense, wasted here -- her abilities and intellect suggest she'd be capable of much 'greater' things -- but then part of the problem of the novel and its world-view is the deep contempt that 'lowly' employment (such as being a concierge) is held in. Barbery suggests it's upper-class employers who pigeon-hole Renée and her job, but really she's no better. Renée has certainly bought into it, convinced that, for example: "Friendship across class lines is impossible".
The message is that the French, of course, are set in their ways, each -- and each class -- knowing their place and acting just like they're supposed to. Friendship across class lines here really is pretty much impossible -- at least that's the way Barbery sees and presents it. How then to show the French how wrong they are ? Bring on the exotic Oriental, the Japanese man with a different sensibility .....
Yes, Barbery kills off one of the tenants and has a Japanese man move in at 7, rue de Grenelle. And the Japanese, of course, do things differently. He redesigns his apartment -- sliding doors, why it makes everything different ! etc. -- and because he's from a different culture he has all different kinds of perspectives. No surprise that he quickly recognises who the two special souls in the building are, and befriends them .....
Both Paloma and Renée are certainly receptive to the Japanese influence by the time he arrives. Paloma had taken up Japanese at school, and is, of course, a manga fan (which oh-so-literary mom just can't comprehend ...), while Renée has discovered the films of Ozu ("a genius who can rescue me from biological destiny" she says, as she watches her tenth Ozu film) and is led to thoughts about The Book of Tea when she serves some for a friend. But the new man in their lives, Kakuro Ozu (a distant relative of the director), is something beyond their wildest Japanese dreams. The revelation for Paloma is that:
this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors.Ozu does the unthinkable: he sees the two not merely as representatives for a particular type -- 'child' and 'concierge' -- but as actual people. More importantly, he doesn't treat them merely as representative types, whereas almost all others' communication with them is defined by these identities (a rare exception being Renée's one close friend, a true-blue working class girl -- an immigrant, of course). Renée makes a big deal of how Ozu sees through her wall and disguise, but there's not really that much to it. Still, the transformation -- her opening up to one (and then another) person -- is fairly nicely done.
Paloma is more problematic, Barbery not nearly utilising her to best effect. Yes, the character allows her to get some nice observations in, but given Paloma's ambitions and the ticking clock -- she promised to suicide on her birthday, after all -- Barbery doesn't manage to keep readers in much suspense. Oh, yes, there are some surprises along the way, but whether or not Paloma will actually off herself on her birthday is not one of them. Despite Barbery's use of her as a vessel for some 'profound thoughts' Paloma remains a very thin character.
Elsewhere, Barbery undermines what few qualities Paloma has with unnecessary or awkward incidentals: the politically correct version of a best friend, Marguerite, a truly token character "of African origin" (whose father Paloma is impressed by because, among other reasons: "He is simple") or Paloma's vow of chastity:
if I were going to live beyond puberty, it would be really important to me to keep sex as a sort of marvelous sacrament.(It's fine to have a character think like that, as a pre-pubescent girl very well might, but there's got to be more behind the thought than Barbery offers here. Indeed, Paloma barely gives a thought to sexual matters, which is surprising, given that this is surely one of the great mysteries of life which will remain entirely unknown to her, given that she plans on checking out literally pre-maturely.)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is of interest mainly in what it says about the French -- both what the book itself says about them, and what the great success of the book in France does. Obsessed with class in a way that will likely be baffling to American readers, it is drawn so black-and-white and so extremely that its social criticism is, for the most part, easy to applaud -- and entirely empty. The upper classes here are so offensive that Barbery, of course, seems to be 'right'. Yet it is also so cartoonish that it's hard to take seriously: reality is so exaggerated that it's almost useless as real social criticism.
The few specific targets Barbery goes after, such as the educational system, are presented in typically confounding fashion. The 'best-educated' (and certainly most cultured) French character is Renée -- who left school when she was twelve (suggesting, of course, that schooling isn't enough (or necessary) to make cultured citizens) -- while the smartest character, Paloma, feels she has to dumb down in order to get by (and yet still is first in her class ...). Meanwhile, higher education is presented as a farce -- witness Mme. Josse's Ph.D. and Paloma's sister's master's thesis -- and all of it is being subsidised by the hard work of the middle class Frenchman (who doesn't seem to benefit much from it).
Barbery eventually reveals a bit more of an explanation for why Renée has tried so hard to keep her true self (and all her abilities and knowledge) hidden -- and it's no surprise what class the villain is ... -- but like everything in the book it is set in a rigid worldview where class decides everything (i.e. one which bears no resemblance to reality, even French reality).
The philosophising in the book, as both Renée and Paloma wonder about the meaning of life, is occasionally of some interest, but the relentless anti-establishment arguments can be wearisome. Much, of course, isn't really argument but simply reactionary points-of-view, as when Paloma says she'd prefer McDonald's food to some fancy, over-priced meal:
At least it's in bad taste without being pretentious.Yes, Paloma occasionally has something of a social conscience -- she's outraged at the thought of: "tons of other people, perhaps some poètes maudits among them, don't even have a decent place to live and are crammed together fifteen or twenty in seventy square feet" -- but what really upsets her is pretension .....
The politics of the book is also an absurd (and, for Americans, surely hilarious (if baffling)) mix of left- and right-wing, as shown in Renée's difficulty in getting a plumber to fix the sewage problem in her bathroom (which fills the air with an unpleasant smell):
"Why hasn't the plumber come yet ?"With the opening of the EU many Western European countries were (and are) worried about jobs being taken by cheaper labour from elsewhere, hence also the notorious case of the Polish plumbers who, it was widely feared, would give local plumbers a run for their money -- and drive them all out of business. Hence the laws in many European countries preventing even EU nationals from practicing many trades in other countries unless properly certified locally. Meanwhile, the railway unions in France have done very well for their workers, including ensuring longtime job-security -- and still have (or at least at the time the book came out in France: had) the clout) to keep a state of massive over-employment in the industry. Barbery's confused pseudo-free-market solutions are more regulation (whereas in the US, for example, one would of course argue for less -- i.e. the removal of the restrictions on practising a trade, and less union rights (which translate into union power)). And the complaint about plumbers who don't have to bother to show up at a job doesn't square particularly well with Barbery's earlier talk of middle classes "working themselves to the bone". Meanwhile, Paloma argues for a kolkhoz (i.e. Soviet-type collective) over a free (or even regulated) market .....
It's this kind of inconsistency, and Barbery's shifting back and forth between focussing on personal and policy transformations, that make the book so muddled. The naïve world-views -- class-defined France, the sage Orient, some token political correctness -- have superficial appeal, but don't withstand much scrutiny. Barbery makes it too easy on herself and her characters -- and chooses the easy outs in her ending. All too obviously heart-warming and life-affirming, Barbery takes far too few risks and isn't very convincing. All the promise of the prospect of the young girl's suicide (a hell of a way to start a book) is almost immediately deflated, and while the novel putters on enjoyably enough it ultimately doesn't add up to nearly enough.
Obsessed with "social prejudice" Barbery goes way overboard in trying to portray it. But it's probably in this extreme picture -- one that allows the reader to condemn the privileged classes and their empty lifestyle, while also having the satisfaction of being secure in the knowledge that this world shan't (and can't ?) be upset -- that accounts for the success of the book. The French can tut-tut this world Barbery exposes, without having to bother doing much about it (since it's not really very close to their own experience) and going merrily along their same old way.
So, while torching an apartment (or the whole house or neighbourhood, for that matter) would have been a largely empty, futile gesture, it still would have been infinitely more satisfying than the conclusion Barbery comes to. Poor little rich girl Paloma deserved better.
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French author Muriel Barbery was born in 1969.
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