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Wall Street Journal: "A beautiful story with a large cast of fascinating, complicated characters whose behavior is delightfully unpredictable."

Date: Nov 11 2008

First my confession.

Until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature earlier this month, I had never heard of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. This says something about me, and it also says something about America.

My initial reaction to Mr. Le Clézio's prize was incredulity. How could yet another obscure European author, completely unknown to me, be the best writer in the world? I was also ashamed. Whether Mr. Le Clézio, who has written more than 30 books and received many prizes, deserved the world's most prestigious literary honor, I obviously was in no position to judge. In all the hours I have spent in American bookstores, I had never run across a single one of his works until last week. Maybe Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, was right when he called the U.S. publishing industry, "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

Thinking about this at a bookstore recently, I picked up "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery, a French novel that has been a best-seller in France, Germany and Italy. When it was published in the U.S. in September, there was much speculation about whether it could make that rare trans-Atlantic leap from European to American best-seller lists.

It hasn't, at least so far. And now that I've read it (in a glittering translation, by Alison Anderson, who has also translated some of Mr. Le Clézio's work), I'm wondering why. Granted, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a terrible title, and the jacket could win a Nobel Prize for ugly. But inside those covers is a beautiful story with a large cast of fascinating, complicated characters whose behavior is delightfully unpredictable.

Maybe the novel's hefty sections on transcendental phenomenology, William of Ockham and 17th-century Dutch painting discourage readers who just want a good old-fashioned story. Ms. Barbery, who has studied and taught philosophy, seems entirely comfortable mixing the profound with the quotidian, Mozart's Requiem with Eminem. No idea is too big or small to find a home in the Parisian apartment building where most of the characters live. Renee Michel, the main narrator, is the building's concierge.

The plot of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" could easily give the impression that it's a kind of Gallic "Upstairs, Downstairs" in which two outsiders (Renee, the concierge, and a troubled adolescent girl) take potshots at the tenants' foibles. But what extraordinary voices these two have, and with what a hilarious combination of cynicism and idealism they perceive the world.

Renee (the metaphorical elegant hedgehog) has perfected the art of conforming strictly to the tenants' stereotype of a Parisian concierge. She never lets them see that she is a self-taught intellectual giant, their superior in every way but class. When one of her wealthy tenants sends her a note with a misplaced comma, she launches a two-page tirade about the responsibilities of the privileged classes to proper language.

A few floors up lives 12-year-old Paloma Josse, also trying to keep her precocity under wraps. Like Renee, she is both brutally judgmental and dangerously hopeful. And she sees with the emperor's clothes clarity of the young. "In town it is the dogs who have their masters on a leash," she writes. "If you have voluntarily saddled yourself with a dog that you'll have to walk twice a day, come rain, wind or snow, that is as good as having put a leash around your own neck." As a dog owner, I can attest to the truth of that.

A major theme of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is class snobbery, which American readers may also think is too old-world. While acknowledging that there are classes in the U.S., Americans don't talk much about tension between them. Understanding Parisian class differences is part of Renee Michel's job security. Knowing that when they pass her door her tenants expect to hear the sound of cheesy daytime television, she buys a second set for her back room, where she watches "Death in Venice" and listens to Mahler. "The television in the front room, guardian of my clandestine activities, could bleat away and I was no longer forced to listen to inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam. I was in the back room, perfectly euphoric, my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art."