from Studio Online
Whatever Muriel Barbery’s intention when she wrote The Elegance of the Hedgehog, it has become the personal manifesto of thousands of readers worldwide since it was first published in 2006 in France. Now available, in paperback, in an English translation from Europa Editions, Barbery’s book is remarkable for the wide range of people who have found inspiration, encouragement, strength and solace from the wisdom expressed by its two main characters, Renée Michel, a stereotype of the frumpy, 50-ish female concierge at a posh Paris apartment building, and Paloma Josse, an introspective, fiercely intelligent 12-year-old resident who has decided that she is done with this world.
Excoriating critics of the insipid, vain and meaningless lives of the upper classes, exemplified by the residents of 7, rue de Grenelle where they live, Renée and Paloma defend themselves with a reverse form of snobbery. They cultivate secret lives protected by an armor of resentment and ridicule. Privately, Renée indulges in literature (Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina are favorites), film (subtle social commentaries made in the 1950s by Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and American blockbusters like Blade Runner), art (still lifes by 17th-century Dutch masters are at the top of her list) and classical music (she can identify the ConfutatisRequiem when it accompanies the flush of a toilet as camouflage). Believing she must downplay her intelligence, Paloma takes refuge in Japanese Manga and two journals she keeps, one of her profound thoughts and one that records significant “Movements of the World,” examples of human behavior that reveal great truths. in Mozart’s
In one of her meditations on the nature of art, Renée articulates an essential attraction of art for people whose lives are held together, day to day, by a constant replay of routine:
“When movement has been banished from a nature that seeks its continuity, when it becomes renegade and remarkable by virtue of its very discontinuity, it attains the level of esthetic creation.
Because art is life, playing to other rhythms.”
Of course, to notice the exquisitely orchestrated alterations of rhythm that occur in genuine works of art–a century-old bonsai, a sentence crafted to grammatical perfection, and an ambrosial Alsatian gloutof for example–one must be alive to the eternal. The residents at 7, rue de Grenelle are completely absorbed by the small, material worlds of privilege they create as a shelter against want and obscurity. For them, their endeavors are ends in themselves, while Renée and Paloma subscribe to an Eastern aesthetic of endeavors as a means, or conduit, to experience. Paloma is disgusted by her family’s hypocrisy. Playing the good wife of a government minister, mother Solange is addicted to psychotherapy, anti-depressants and sleeping pills, and sister Colombe dresses like a vagabond to be trendy, engages in pointless conversations (grammatical travesties, according to Paloma) with her equally wealthy friends, and wastes her considerable intelligence on an extensive but superficial inquiry into the philosophy of 14th-century English Franciscan friar and logician William of Ockham.
The unrelenting tension between the haves and have-nots (and the turmoil it causes Renée and Paloma) raises a question faced by human beings since the founding of civilization: Is pretending to be invisible–a “no one”–a better form of protection than aspiring to be a “someone.” Despite their consolations, Renée or Paloma continually wage a covert war against the vulgarity, triviality and banality surrounding them.
Barbery inserts characters outside this all-out social and aesthetic war to release Renée and Paloma from their obsessive self-awareness. Renée’s says her only friend, a Portuguese maid named Manuela, has the heart of an aristocrat. If, as Renée states, you have one friend only you must choose her well. And, certainly, Renée has done so, since although Manuela doesn’t know Levin (from War and Peace) from Lenin (the Russian Revolutionary), she bakes pastries fit for a queen, has impeccable manners and provides just what is needed, when it is needed and without much ado. A more sizeable perceptual shift comes when a new tenant moves to 7, rue de Grenelle. Retired Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu symbolizes a pared-down aesthetic favored by Renée and Paloma, which they attribute to the Japanese. This elegant man is warm, unflaggingly good humored and a distant relative of the famed Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, making him a god in Renée’s eyes.
It turns out that Ozu and Renée share very precise loves in the realms of art, music, literature and fine pastry. He sees behind the frumpy concierge mask she wears by day and sets out to, gently, unmask her. Through Ozu, Renée and Paloma form a bond, and soon a sense of possibility replaces their internal chaos. At one point, Renée decrees, “Those who seek eternity find solitude.” But as she and Paloma discover, those who find eternity do so through the deep and enduring power of friendship.
Alternating chapters with Renée’s chronicle of events and Paloma’s journal entries, the format of the novel is ideal for underlining passages. (Many readers will want to record the names of books, films and music mentioned by Renée and Paloma’s startling revelations.) The ending might disappoint those who have become attached to the lovable but flawed characters in this microcosm of twenty-first century urban life; if so, do not fear because there is much to revisit in this ode to the joy kindled by art.
Reviewed by Cindi Di Marzo