Thursday, January 19, 2012

Literary Bite: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I love this book. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson) is beautifully written, the story is compelling, and I really am totally head-over-heels in love with it. 

It’s pretentious in just the way I like: elaborate vocabulary, beautifully constructed sentences, and obscure literary references one has to know Russian classics to understand. 

The story has two narrators, both living in a bourgeoisie building in Paris. Renée Michelle is a 54-year-old concierge who secretly adores literature, education, and art but feels that she must camouflage herself as an ignoramus. “I may be indigent in name, position, and in appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivaled goddess -” 

The second narrator is 12-year-old Paloma, one of the building’s wealthy inhabitants. Paloma is extremely intelligent and precocious, thinks life is silly, and plans to commit suicide. (“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”) 

Mr. Ozu says, “M. Michelle has the 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 of the hedgehog; a deceptively indolent creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

I will admit, The Elegance of the Hedgehog wasn’t love at first page. The NYT review agrees: “Especially in the novel’s early stretch, Barbery, a professor of philosophy, seems too clever for her own good.” But by about 50 pages in I was hooked, and 150 pages in I was 100% sold. 

The story is written in a series of short chapters, alternating between  Renée and Palmoma. Some have more action, and some are more like essays. The story really picks up when Mr. Ozu, a Japanese businessman, moves into the building. The three become unlikely friends and it is wonderful. 

 Have you read this book? Did you love it? 

The language in this book is so good - there are certain passages I read over and over just because I wanted to savor the sounds and ideas. 
“Do you know that it is in your company that I have had my finest thoughts?” (Renée to her best friend Manuela)
"They didn't recognize me," I say. I came to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, complete flabbergasted. "They didn't recognize me," I repeat. He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm. "It is because they have never seen you," he says.  "I would recognize you anywhere." (Renée and Mr. Ozu)
I could copy and paste quotes to you for ever...but I won't. Just read it! 

Here's a good review/summary. and an interview with the author