Le Figaro called it the revelation of the year. Lire called it the masterpiece of the year. It even won the Prix Femina last year. We’re talking about “L’Elegance du Herisson” by Muriel Barbery which recently came out in English. With such lofty praise it seemed almost ridiculous not to see what the fuss was all about.
The story is told in alternating chapters between Madame Renée Michel, the concierge at no 7 rue de Grenelle and Paloma Josse, the precocious daughter of one of the bourgeois families of the building. Renée hides a fierce intelligence, love of literature (notably of Leo Tolstoy) and love of Japanese culture. But, she is forced such shining facets of her personality under the veneer of what the French have come to expect from a concierge—stupid, old, ugly and sour. She only has her friend Manuela, to relieve the tedium and penury of her existence. Paloma on the other hand, is an extremely intelligent (in her own words) young girl who is disillusioned by her family and their privileged, if pointless, way of life and as such has decided to end her existence in a fiery blaze on her 13th birthday. Each seem set on their respective course till an elegant Japanese gentleman comes to live in their building. From such a random occurrence their collective lives change as they discover that there is more to the other than meets the eye.
I have to admit that my main problem with the book was its basic premise that a person, deemed lowly in social station, could not possibly be more than what society thinks the person should be. This book assumes that its (French) readers would take it as a matter of course that a concierge would be lacking intelligence and culture. Even worse was the way it was repeated all throughout the text. Barberry takes pains to drive home the lowliness of Renee’s station every so often that it jars the reader from the text. It was quite disturbing for me, but perhaps as an Anglophone reader, there is a cultural context here that I am missing. The fact that the whole story hinges on this presumption undermines what Barberry set out to do—which in essence is to write a meditative tale on philosophy, art and unlikely friendships. There are passages in the book that are quite lovely especially her philosophy musings on art and beauty and what these concepts mean to us. Or how beauty can be found in the most fleeting of moments. To wit, “the most noble concepts often emerge from the most coarse and commonplace things….Beauty is consonance [but] if you think about it at all seriously, esthetics is really nothing more than an initiation to the Way of Consonance, a sort of Way of the Samurai applied to the intuition of authentic forms. We all have knowledge of harmony, anchored deep within. It is this knowledge that enables us, at every instance, to apprehend quality in our lives and on the rare occasions when everything is in perfect harmony , to appreciate it with the apposite intensity. ..Those who feel inspired as I do by the greatness of small things will pursue them to the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire, this greatness will emerge from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way.” Barberry is in her element when it comes to writing these parts of the book and to my mind, they are the best parts.
Read the Elegance of the Hedgehog if you want to have an insight into the French psyche with its deep and abiding interest in philosophical musings on art, beauty and truth.