The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
A few chapters into The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery I felt annoyed. The book was pressing hard on a couple of my hot buttons and I thought I was going to have to dislike a book that millions of other people have loved. The two main characters seemed to be nothing but literary expressions of two of my biggest peeves – the idea that things like good literature and art are only for the privileged and formally educated and the other idea – the notion that smart people cannot believe in a higher power. However, despite that vague feeling of irritation, I could not help but continue reading because I like novels that weave philosophy into the story and I quickly became intrigued by what was happening.
The two main characters are Renée Michel, a 54-year-old widowed concierge for a posh apartment building in Paris, and Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old younger daughter of one of the wealthy families who live at number 7, rue de Grenelle. Renée’s frowzy appearance and grumpy demeanor is a carefully constructed façade designed to play into the popular preconception of lower-class concierge type and thus hide her high intelligence and passion for things like beauty and art. She has only one friend: Manuela, the building’s Portuguese cleaning woman, who is secretly a classy tea-drinking aristocratic lady.
Renée secretly indulges in studying philosophy, reading great literature, watching Japanese art films, appreciating the Dutch Masters, and listening to Mahler. Nothing wrong with any of that of course. The thing that initially had me annoyed was the whole idea that is somehow wrong that she, a person from a poor family, should enjoy these things, so wrong that she is compelled to hide her real self behind a false persona of a frumpy junk TV-watching concierge who lives with her large lazy cat and has no real life. Renée in fact does share quarters with a large lazy cat whose name is Leo, as in Tolstoy.
Paloma Josse is also extremely intelligent and also feels the need to hide her genius, her façade being that of an “average” child. The book alternates between Renée’s narration and Paloma’s journals: “Profound Thoughts” and “Journal of the Movement of the World.” The thing that initially annoyed me about Paloma is her assertion that to be intelligent means to “know” that life is ultimately meaningless and there is no God, a notion that is such utter nonsense that every time I hear it, I have to question the intelligence of the source. But after all, Paloma is only 12 years old and rather charming, so I kept reading. Her profound thoughts and observations are definitely entertaining, and also, they keep the story moving forward.
In Paloma’s first entry, “Profound Thought No. 1,” she writes, “The problem is that children believe what adults say and, and once they’re adults themselves, they exact their revenge by deceiving their own children. ‘Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe.” With only her own family and school to go by, as well as books of course, Paloma has concluded that she is destined for a vain existence like a fish in a bowl so she decides that on her 13th birthday, several months in the future, she will set her family’s 4000-square foot apartment on fire and commit suicide. Unless in the interim she can find some meaning truly worth living for. To her credit she puts great effort in her quest to discover something true and meaningful.
So as the story went on I soon began to like it better. The irritants slowly began to erode as events caused the hard shells of the main characters to crack and the light of possibility begins shines through and thaw their frozen souls. When a long-time resident – a snobby food critic – dies, the man’s family does something no resident has done in the 27 years Renée has worked in the building: they sell the apartment, the entire 4th floor. The buyer is a kindly Japanese business man in his sixties named Kakuro Ozu. When Renée first hears the man’s name, it causes her to sit down and wonder about strange signs and coincidences as she has lately been indulging in the films of Yasujirō Ozu. Later it turns out Kakuro is in fact a distant cousin of the filmmaker.
Kakuro Ozu immediately remodels the 4th floor and inspires the intense curiosity of the other residents. But only Paloma and Renée receive invitations to his newly remodeled apartment. Kakuro quickly sees through Renée’s façade and recognizes the full extent of her intelligence, and sincere recognition of one’s worth is irresistible magic, even to the most thickly guarded heart.
A sort of social caste system has long been the historical norm in Europe. At least in all my reading (or all my viewing of Downton Abbey) I have yet to come across any indication to the contrary. Although it does seem like maybe this centuries-old paradigm has broken down in the last century of so, this novel seems to suggest that it is still going strong, at least in some sectors. There are still privileged people who seem to perceive the poor as being unworthy of the same level of respect as people of their own class. Or they sort of don’t see the poor at all. In the way this book deals with the issue of how people see or don’t see each other, I think Barbery has produced an excellent work of art. By the way, let me make clear I have no objection at all to some people having more material wealth than other people. I only object to people thinking wealth equates to a higher understanding of beauty and art. I prefer to think that, although not everyone can appreciate literature and art equally, the ability to do so is a talent that shows up in at all economic levels and life circumstances.
The novel is funny, tender, and sad, and the human interactions seem genuine yet with a touch of the miraculous, because it does seem miraculous whenever people are able to connect on an essential and real level across social, economic, and age barriers. Sometimes the characters even connect across species barriers. Several of the more charming minor characters are animals, including Renée’s cat Leo and several other pet cats, as well as a couple of dogs including a Cocker Spaniel named Neptune. Animals in novels serve much the same purpose as they serve in real life: they give our lives and stories depth and a sense of connection to the natural world. And as with the animal in the the book’s title, they also provide useful metaphors.
Hedgehogs pop up so much in philosophical writings and literature that they seem to be the animal totem of the thinking arts. The first hedgehog I thought of was the one in Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” but the themes of the novel seem more in accord with Schopenhauer’s dilemma parable about how hedgehogs want closeness but closeness always means getting pricked, but Muriel Barbery is a professional philosopher, so she have had something entirely different in mind when she titled the book. Paloma does refer in her journal to Renée as having “the elegance of a hedgehog.” For a 12-year-old Paloma is amazingly skilled in verbal expression.
I ended up loving the book. The bonus is that it comes with many short easily digestible philosophy lessons: a bit of German idealism and a smattering of phenomenology go down smoothly when wrapped in an interesting story. Also the novel introduced me to an abundance of obscure art and film references I can now enjoy exploring further.
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- The edition I read: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, published September 2nd 2008 by Europa Editions. Translated from French by Alison Anderson. The book was originally published in France by Gallimard in August 2006, and was a major bestseller in France and throughout Europe.
- There is a French film version of the book that came out in 2009 and won all kinds of awards at film festivals. See the trailer here.
- In the Wikipedia article on the book, I found the following quote: “In an interview with Time magazine, Barbery added that she created characters “who love the things [she does], and who allowed [her] to celebrate that through them”. But of course. Who wouldn’t like to create characters who love the things we love? What we love is what defines us, whether we live in the real world or between the pages of a novel. What do your characters love?
- Schopenhauer’s hedgehog’s (or porcupine’s) dilemma story goes like this:
A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.
- This is from Parerga und Paralipomena, Volume II, Chapter XXXI, Section 396. (And no, so far I have not gotten around to reading Parerga und Paralipomena
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I don’t think I have any hedgehogs residing in my neighborhood and I’m not even sure there is a porcupine within 50 miles of here, but I do have a somewhat metaphorical squirrel or two hanging around…..