The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those intriguing publishing success stories that come along every year or two, riding a wave of word-of-mouth support onto bestseller lists. A check at amazon.com today shows it at #111 overall and #22 in literary fiction, impressive numbers for a book that has been out for more than 18 months. I’m willing to bet that a lot of book clubs are reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog this year — and part of me can understand why.
Those kind of novels are not my normal fare, but I do venture into the territory occasionally (and not just in prize competitions). Actually, with Muriel Barbery it started out as an inadvertent detour — I picked up Gourmet Rhapsody (reviewed here) a few months ago since its premise (the death of a miserable food critic) interested me. I assumed it was Barbery’s second novel, but a helpful correction in comments from Claire set me right: second translated into English, but first in the writing. This book is novel number two for the author.
The “hedgehog” of the title is 54-year-old Renee Michel:
For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hotel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant.
Because I am rarely friendly — though always polite — I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.
The narrative stream centred on Mme Michel is told in the first person and it does not take long to discover that she does not regard her concierge’s small loge as a prison cell, but rather a castle. She has chosen isolation as a form of protection and is quite happy to have only one friend, a Portugese cleaning lady in the same building who stops by each day for tea. While born a peasant, she is intelligent and has an aptitude for self-education — she is well read, knows her philosophers and her music. The wealthy residents of the building are more than willing to treat her as a grumpy, if polite, servant and that suits Renee’s purpose just fine.
The second narrative stream of the book features Paloma Josse, the twelve-and-a-half-year-old daughter of one of the resident families — her father is a former government minister. She hates her older sister, mother and father (pretty much in that order) and all that they represent:
We are, basically, programmed to believe in something that doesn’t exist, because we are living creatures; we don’t want to suffer. So we spend all our energy persuading ourselves that there are things that are worthwhile and that that is why life has meaning. I may be very intelligent, but I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to struggle against this biological tendency. When I join the adults in the rat race, will I still be able to confront this feeling of absurdity? I don’t think so. That is why I’ve made up my mind: at the end of the school year, on the day I turn thirteen, June sixteenth, I will commit suicide.
Before taking her leave, however, Paloma intends to complete two sets of documents: Profound Thoughts and Journal of the Movement of the World.
Her story is also told in the first person in the form of these documents. As a reader you have to be willing to accept that this pre-teen is wise well beyond her years — I found it difficult at times, but was willing to give the author licence.
In fact, that contrast of two individuals of significantly different ages who have chosen isolation as their place in the world is the strongest part of the book. Renee’s choice was made because of a traumatic family incident in childhood — while she never actually says it “no good comes from trying to rise above your station” would pretty much sum up her world view. Barbery is less clear with Paloma’s motivation: the trauma of approaching adulthood is probably the best explanation.
Of course, for the novel to go anywhere these two characters are going to have to be engaged with the world. That comes with the arrival of Kakuro Ozu as a new resident in the building — he is a Japanese film director whose work Renee knows well. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the three eventually form a bond but I’ll leave those details out.
For this reader, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not without its problems. The choice of June 16 (that would be Bloomsday) as Paloma’s birth-death date provides one illustration. Renee’s cat is named Leo (after Tolstoy); Ozu’s are Levin and Kitty. Barbery spends most of her time in Japan now so there is a whole set of Japanese references that passed me right by. My issue is that the author uses these as a kind of literacy legitimacy checklist (“did you get the one about whomever” I am sure is a frequent book club observation) rather than to add depth to the story. They arrive with often clumsy frequency and start to very much get in the way of the better parts of the book.
A more serious problem is that Barbery uses her parallel first-person narratives as an excuse to explore ideas about Art, Beauty and Meaning (she doesn’t always use capital letters, but often does). While that is a laudable objective, most of them do tend to read like the thoughts of a concierge or pre-teen, which is what probably made the capital letters necessary. Again, things to be talked about after you have read the book but, for me at least, not much food for thought.
All of which leaves me reacting to this novel very much in the way that I did to Gourmet Rhapsody. Parts of it are quite good and that central theme of isolation is attractive. Barbery writes originally in French and is more than competent at creating those wonderful, cascading sentences that distinguish French fiction. Unfortunately, too often the book wanders into muddy diversions that add little and leave one waiting for them to end.
I am somewhat surprised to see this book on the IMPAC shortlist, given their recent winners. The last four — Man Gone Down, DeNiro’s Game, Out Stealing Horses and The Master — all come from a much edgier part of the literary world than this novel. While I can certainly understand why many readers like this book very much (even if I am not as enthusiastic), I would be very surprised if the jury agrees with that assessment. Of course, I have been wrong before.