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Repubblica (Italy): "The formula that made more than half a million readers in France fall in love with The Elegance of the Hedgehog has, among other ingredients: intelligent humor, fine sentiments, [and] an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop"

Date: Sep 22 2007

The Elegance of the “Caviar Left”
By Maurizio Bono
La Repubblica (Italy)
September 22, 2007

What is the mysterious pheromone that certain books secrete, turning them into bestsellers? That is the enigma most frequently contemplated by legions of publishing-industry alchemists. But the answer is elusive, like the philosopher’s stone, because the formula behind each publishing sensation, every bestseller, is singular.  Thankfully! Because if this were not the case, each bestseller would resemble those that came before it and the resulting boredom would leave us no option but to reread the classics.

The formula that made more than half a million readers in France fall in love with The Elegance of the Hedgehog has, among other ingredients: intelligent humor, fine sentiments, an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop, taste that is sophisticated but substantial, just a touch of the toadying Paris featured in films like Amélie, and a tad of righteous annoyance at rampant class injustices—the kind of sentiments that enliven films like Guédiguian’s Marius and Jeannette.

Indeed, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a social comedy. And if the world is rife with steep steps, there are no steeper social steps than those running between the landings of number 7 Rue de Grenelle: on the fifth floor, there’s the family Josse, father a pompous and vacuous parliamentarian, his wife, two daughters and two cats (Constitution and Parliament); while on the ground floor, there’s the lair of the concierge, Renée, (“I am fifty-four years old, I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump,”) and her cat Leo.

But Leo is named in homage to Tolstoy.

Yes, Renée is a formidable autodidact who adores War and Peace, has read Marx, and who dismissed Husserl when she realized that phenomenology cannot demolish Kantian idealism after all. She loves Japanese cinema, art, and cuisine, Blade Runner and Mahler. But she only permits herself these indulgences in private, and in order not to be discovered by the snobbish cretins on the upper floors she keeps the television on all day, thus corresponding perfectly “to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge.”

The only one who intuits the intellectual and human superiority of the good concierge is a young girl, Paloma, who is, in turn, a sensitive genius in disguise. She simulates mediocrity at school so as not to risk exclusion and is contemplating committing suicide on the day of her thirteenth birthday to avoid growing cynical and superficial like the adults that surround her.

These two sagacious ugly ducklings naturally end up forming an alliance, with the assistance of a Japanese man named Ozu, the only cultured one among the rich tenants—after all this is a reformist social comedy—at 7 rue de Grenelle. He gleans everything because, with his cultural DNA, he immediately recognizes wabi, “an understated form of beauty, a quality of refinement masked by rustic simplicity.”

But the best part of this book isn’t the plot, it is the boundless fun the author has as she good-naturedly eviscerates the super-educated but ignorant sons and daughters of the rich (like Paloma’s own sister, Colombe), raised on vitamin supplements and superiority complexes by parents who have survived decades of structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis only to stuff themselves with Prozac and phony post-bourgeois certainties.

Intelligent and upright enough herself to aspire to a large loft in rue de Grenelle and tea ceremonies with Ozu-san, Muriel Barbery indulges en passant in the satisfaction of killing off (with a heart attack this time) a nasty food critic who lives in the building. This is in fact the second time she has offed the same character, who happened to be the protagonist of her previous novel, Une Gourmandise. As literary creation, he was Barbery’s way of thumbing her nose at the snobbery of the Paris “caviar left.” But in the former novel, unlike The Elegance of the Hedgehog, she hadn’t yet perfected the mysterious recipe of the perfectly cooked bestseller.

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