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Le Monde: "Fifty-five weeks after it release, Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog is still on all of the country’s bestseller lists..."

Date: Oct 2 2007

Run Hedgehog, Run!
Le Monde (France)
October 2, 2007

The Hedgehog’s running, all right. And from the offices of Gallimard, its French publisher, they’re watching the phenomenon with a kind eye and…well, licking their lips. Fifty-five weeks after it release, Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog is still on all of the country’s bestseller lists. Even better: during the week of September 17th, it returned to second place among fiction titles, right behind Amélie Nothomb’s most recent labor, but ahead of Yasmina Reza.

At Gallimard’s Paris headquarters in rue Sébastien-Bottin, they’re underlining the fact that you’d have to go back to January 2000 and Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, or Philippe Delerm’s We Could Almost Eat Outside: An Appreciation of Life's Small Pleasures, which sold 800 thousand copies between 1997 and 2000, to witness a similar phenomenon.

“It is the very definition of a long-seller,” notes Gallimard’s commercial director Philippe Le Tendre. In other words, as opposed to the classic bestseller, its sales start slow and last for many, many months.

On September 25th, Gallimard decided to send the fiftieth reprint to press, thanks to which the book passed the 600-thousand-printed-copies mark. The Hedgehog has even surpassed the “hare” Jonathan Littell, whose novel was published in fall 2006. Nobody ever imagined that this tender, funny book with a philosophical vein would have enjoyed such incredible success. For some, it is part Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder part Monsieur Malaussene by Daniel Pennac. While for others it resembles a written version of the film Amélie. Either way, readers are responding in vast numbers.

The climb to the top was made one step at a time, and was partially obscured by the powerhouse Littell, whose nine hundred pages literally demolished all other books in the running last year.

When she published The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the thirty-seven-year-old professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery was not, however, an illustrious unknown writer. In 2000 she published Une Gourmandise, a book that arrived on Gallimard editor Jean-Marie Laclavetine’s desk as a manuscript, and which immediately grabbed his attention. Foreign rights manager Anne-Solange Noble then sold the book to thirteen countries. Quite a result for a first novel!

When it was released, The Elegance of the Hedgehog received significant support from booksellers, who awarded it the French Booksellers Association prize, and it benefited from favorable critical attention, in particular in the catholic papers and on the radio. In Le Monde’s book supplement (September 22, 2006) Monique Petillon briefly noted this “tasteful diary of a pre-teen armed with a lucid and caustic outlook.” But the book’s success came largely thanks to word-of-mouth praise.

The Hedgehog’s success has also helped along sales of Barbery’s first novel, published in 2002. At the time, sales of that book peaked at around 4,700 copies. In the first months of this year, they had reached over 70,000.

This kind of notoriety is doubly impressive when one considers that Muriel Barbery, discreet and reserved by nature, has avoided television, where she simply doesn’t feel comfortable. How far will this phenomenon go? Nobody dares make a prognostication. In the meantime, a film adaptation is underway with a 2008-09 release date, and twenty-five countries have acquired rights to the little prickly beast.

Simultaneously a long-seller and a bestseller, the Hedgehog is every publisher’s dream. For a small press, this kind of success can guarantee several years’ worth of resources. For Gallimard, it is an acknowledgement of their good instincts and professionalism. And, given that Gallimard not only published the book but also promote and distribute it, enduring benefits are assured.
Proportionally, the jackpot for Gallimard is higher even than that associated with the October release of Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows. In the Hedgehog’s case, they’re dealing with an in-house author, while for Harry Potter the publisher must pay acquisition rights for Rowling’s book and add the cost of translation.

A little overwhelmed by events, Muriel Barbery has decided to pull the plug for a while. She sold her house in Colleville-sur-Mer, in Calvados, asked the Ministry of Education for a year’s sabbatical, and left on a long voyage to the Far East with her family, before returning and sitting down to work on her third novel.  

By Alain Beuve-Méry

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