“An exquisite book in the form of a philosophical fable that has enchanted hundreds of thousands of readers.”—Elle (Italy)
“The formula that made more than half a million readers in France fall in love with this book has, among other ingredients: intelligent humor, fine sentiments, an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop, good taste, sophistication and substance.”—La Repubblica (Italy) Read complete review >>
“Nobody ever imagined that this tender, funny book with a philosophical vein would have enjoyed such incredible success.”—Le Monde (France) Read complete review >>
“Enthusiastically recommended for anyone who loves books that grow quietly and then blossom suddenly.”—Marie Claire (France)
“The concierge [in The Elegance of the Hedgehog] is a minor masterpiece à la Simenon, tucked away in her loge with her cat—de rigueur, of course—her ‘façade’ conforms to convention, but what lies behind the façade astounds. And Paloma is equally as entertaining.”—WUZ Magazine (Italy) Read complete review >>
“The most astounding French literary sensation of 2007 is entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog . . . The enormous success of this novel demonstrates just how responsive the public is to heartening and ‘readable’ tales.”—La Stampa (Italy) Read complete review >>
“A posh building in rue de Grenelle (Paris), its days recounted from two points of view, one belonging to a cultured concierge, the other to a little rich girl with suicidal tendencies. Add some caustic humor, philosophical discourses, and an oversize adoration of Japanese culture and you have the ingredients of a novel that plays merrily with stereotypes, quotes Proust, Eminem, and Husserl, and has surprised everyone by remaining at the top of the French bestseller lists for months.”—D-La repubblica (Italy)
“Barbery captures life’s small, indeed minuscule, pleasures, those perfect moments in which everything hangs suspended . . . Funny, intelligent, conveyed with a fine, melodious language, this philosophical fairy tale has something of the oriental about it: earnestly buoyant, airy, like a haiku.”—Channel 5 (France)
“Hedgehog or Prozac? At first, the question may seem absurd. But it becomes less so when one learns that a Parisian psychotherapist is prescribing Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog to her patients. ‘Yes, I am prescribing it, and I do mean prescribing. This book can do a lot of good . . . [it’s] a real toolbox that one can look into to resolve one’s problems.’ . . . And, indeed, all women, at least once, even Carla Bruni, have lived through the kind of psychological self-denigration that Renée inflicts on herself in the opening scene of the book. The ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part (Renée smells of cabbage soup but reads Husserl) constitutes one of the book’s operative factors.”—L’express (France) Read complete review >>
“Appearances can be deceptive: this is one of the book’s messages. The writing is succinct, unusual, light yet erudite. And the story approaches that of a fable, but without the puerile elements and with a little extra touch of impertinence.”—Le Figaro (France) Read complete review >>
“A richly suggestive novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog traces a wide arc as it pursues the peccadilloes of contemporary society and portrays our pitiable primate preoccupations (sex, territory, hierarchy) with humor and erudition . . . But the invincible appeal of this book is in its formidably charming characters and in the multitude of intelligent reflections on pets, burnt out cars, learning and scholarship, and much more.”—Nouvel Observateur (France)
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about the victory of the defenseless over the self-important, about how difficult it is to endure when situations become extreme. Finally, it is about how you cannot hold anything against art except perhaps for the fact that, though it may appear to suspend time, it does not offer a means of defying mortality.”—Der Spiegel (Germany)
“The highly educated Renée has been a concierge in Paris for twenty-seven years. Paloma is thirteen, super gifted for her age and the daughter of rich parents. With biting wit, both recount their lives, the lives of their neighbors, and a whole lot more.”—Glamour (Germany)
“Great social satire, a very intelligent guide through art and philosophy—a most entertaining and moving story about two outsiders.”—Medien (Germany)
“Well worth the read. A mixture of literature, philosophical consideration and social satire”—Börsenblatt (Germany)
“This book is as extraordinary as its heroines. Free of any real ‘action’ it is nonetheless immensely exciting and captivating. For the most part, the book focuses on two intelligent characters who philosophize about the small pleasures of everyday life. But the manner in which they do so is touching, exhilarating, fascinating and entertaining all at the same time—and at times incredibly funny. Whoever is convinced that philosophical discourse is highbrow and boring will think otherwise after having read The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”—Buchenreule (Germany)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Giulia Mozzato
WUZ Magazine (Italy)
October 23, 2007
Here we are again, witness to a unique publishing “sensation.” What is it that prompted Italians to discover and buy this novel, despite its author having previously published only one novel—a wonderful book, in truth, but one that few noticed?
What is the secret? Perhaps the cover (graceful but nothing exceptional), or the title (entertaining but not extraordinary), or the puff on the cover telling us that this book was a bestseller in France. Yes, perhaps this is what prompts us to pick the book up and to want to thumb through it and buy it. This must be what convinced its first Italian readers to take the book home with them (perhaps some of them already knew that it had sold over 600 thousand copies in France, that it had sat at the top of the bestseller lists for many consecutive weeks, to be finally toppled from the top spot by no less than Amélie Nothomb…).
I, too, am curious, and I start reading. And it is immediately clear to me. Of course! The secret is this: the author takes us into an apartment building in the middle of Paris and introduces us to its inhabitants one by one. Rémi Waterhouse did this in his wonderful film The Landlords. Prior to that, Cédric Klapisch had done something similar, recounting stories of his Paris neighborhood, Pastiglia, and its inhabitants, in When the Cat’s Away.
The technique employed in The Elegance of The Hedgehog is very cinematic, visual, with a sharpness to it that is almost photographic—if you don’t count the numerous philosophical asides, that is, which are not always brilliant.
There are two narrative voices: the concierge, who recounts the details of her quotidian existence, and little Paloma, who we meet through the pages of her diary. It already seems a film, with just the right kinds of framings, cuts, close ups and long tracking shots. In terms of rhythm, the author enters the soul of a character, then steps back out and views the scene from a distance. She observes, recounts, goes back into a given apartment and comes back out, bringing with her the life of its inhabitants, whom we readers experience as utterly real, living.
The concierge is a minor masterpiece à la Simenon, tucked away in her loge with her cat—de rigueur, of course. Her “facade” conforms to convention, but what lies behind the façade is surprising. And Paloma is no less entertaining. She is the daughter of a rich parliamentarian (we’re dealing with a high-rent apartment building after all) and a rather frivolous graduate in literature. Paloma compares the concierge to a hérisson, a hedgehog, without realizing that she too is a Hedgehog, a young girl who has understood too early the meaning of life: “People aim for the stars and end up like goldfish in a bowl.” She acutely sums up the world and decides that the majority of its inhabitants, for one reason or another, are inferior beings. Her delusion is such that she decides to end her life on the day of her thirteenth birthday.
Then there’s the Portuguese maid at the Broglie’s house, who, instead of fitting the stereotype of the coarse cleaning lady, is a true aristocrat who “is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.” Naturally, she is the best friend of the concierge, who in turn pretends to watch rubbish on television while in truth she is listening to Mahler.
Around these women (principally the concierge Renée and the young Paloma) revolves the building’s aristocratic, supercilious, irritating cosmos: the Palliéres on the sixth floor, the Josses (Paloma’s family) on the fifth, the Arthens on the fourth, the Saint-Nices and the Badoises on the third, the Meurisses and the Rosens on the second and the Broglies on the first.
Then comes the arrival of a wealthy (naturally) Japanese man, Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, a man attentive to the people around him and the only one able to appreciate the elegance of the hedgehog. His entrance reshuffles the building’s playing cards. Thanks to him, the two narrative voices draw nearer, paralleling one another, and the two women discover their elective affinities.
Perhaps the author includes too many philosophical asides and citations, which, in this kind of novel, can sometimes hold the story up and make it rigid. But that is the only defect in this original, slightly melancholy, story that has enchanted readers.
Mona Achache, the screenwriter who has the job of adapting the novel for a film produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint, has declared that appearances notwithstanding “this is not an easy, linear text. There’s a lot of work to be done,” work that she has been at since January 2007. If asked when filming will begin, the answer is always the same: wait, there’s no cast yet, and the problems are manifold. One of these problems, as a reader wrote on Muriel Barbery’s blog, is that the only “Renée” imaginable is sadly no longer with us: Simone Signoret.
Marx in the Background
By Gabriella Bosco
Tuttolibri – La Stampa (Italy)
October 27, 2007
The most astounding French literary sensation of 2007 is entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, thirty-nine-year-old professor of Philosophy. In a few short weeks the book climbed to the top of the bestseller lists and positioned itself in the number one spot, where it remained for months, selling hundreds of thousand of copies.
It is an “agreeable” book in which, at least up to a certain point, what happens is not as important as the way in which what does happen is recounted. The narration is entrusted to two female first person voices that address the reader directly. The resulting characters are as different from one another in appearances as they are similar at a more intimate level.
The first voice belongs to Renée, the fifty-four-year-old concierge at 7 rue de Grenelle—a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris largely inhabited by left-leaning intellectuals. The second voice belongs to Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the building on the fifth floor. She is the daughter of a parliamentarian (once a minister) and a mother who boasts a Ph.D. in literature. She also has an older sister named Colombe, a philosophy student.
The character of the concierge focuses on the opposition of her “real self” with the clichés that typically pigeonhole her, and, at the same time, on her overweening desire to keep her real self, that self that contradicts the stereotypes, hidden. Renée reads Marx and Husserl, watches films by Ozu, and cooks herself dinners of red mullet with coriander. But she does everything—obsessively—to ensure that no one in the building finds out. She thus creates a mise en place around her that reproduces in the tiniest details the cliché to which she wouldn’t think of conforming for anything in the world. She dresses sloppily, goes shopping continually, making a show of the tufts of vegetables, slabs of meat and ham, pasta and tomato paste sticking out of her shopping bag: she keeps the television on and at high volume all the time, tuned into the worst possible dross. Yet, to we readers she reveals that those pauper’s victuals are destined for her cat Leo, that the television is always on, but never watched, and that this whole scene is designed to preserve, inviolate, her refuge: a small room in the back where she can cultivate her refined tastes and her mind undisturbed.
The twelve-year-old Paloma, who hides a secret existential project behind a façade, is similar. She pretends to be your average twelve-year-old: she dresses like them; at school she does what is asked of her, but doesn’t stick out. The reader, however, is privy to what amounts to her diary and she reveals herself to be extraordinarily gifted and advanced for her age. So lucid, so intelligent, so extraordinarily alert to the vanity of all things (in particular, the renunciation of ideals to which in her eyes adulthood is ineluctably a slave) that she has decided to kill herself on the day of her thirteenth birthday to avoid ending up renouncing everything herself. A preemptive renunciation, in short, chosen rather than subjected to.
These games—the living fictions of the two narrators—are thrown into disarray by the arrival of a character that reveals the true nature of both. He is a rich Japanese man, a new tenant brought into the building and the novel by Muriel Barbery via the death of a grating food critic, whose apartment is then turned over to the newcomer. Monsieur Ozu magically perceives the truth about Renée and Paloma and brings them into each other’s orbit. With a further twist that I shan’t give away here, the story blossoms into a fable. Beauty triumphs, though only after a rite of passage through the narrow doors of death.
The enormous success of this novel demonstrates just how responsive the public is to heartening and “readable” tales.
February 7, 2008
From bookstore windows to the psychoanalyst’s couch! Some therapists are prescribing Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel to their patients.
Hedgehog or Prozac? At first, the question may seem absurd. But it becomes less so when one learns that a Parisian psychotherapist is prescribing Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog to her patients. “Yes, I am prescribing it, and I do mean prescribing. This book can do a lot of good,” affirms Maude Julien, a leading analyst in the fifteenth arrondissement. “The novel is a real toolbox that one can look into to resolve one’s problems.” This, in retrospect, might largely explain the book’s success.
Muriel Barbery didn’t expect that her Hedgehog would gain her recognition of this sort. The novel was released to a quiet reception in the torpid publishing summer of 2006. A year and a half and 900 thousand copies later, Renée the concierge, Paloma the prodigy, and Ozu of the sensitive soul fearlessly continue to challenge the various Goncourt winners, the Millennium series, and Phillip Roth on our bestseller lists. “One of my patients, completely transformed by this book, confessed that he had given it as a gift to thirty-four different people,” says Maude Julien.
One Patient Cured of Her Fear of Flying
“Therapy is not limited to what happens during visits to the analyst,” explains Julien, citing the theories of the American, Milton Erickson. “The work must continue outside my office. For this reason so-called ‘therapeutic work’ is assigned to the patient. Reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog fits this picture perfectly.” In the past, our psychologist has recommended The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and short stories by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. But these were nothing compared to the Hedgehog, a bona fide panacea for many patients. So, why recommend this novel in particular? “Because it dramatizes, with great sensitivity, many situations in which our patients find themselves, above all our female patients,” explains Alain Schmidt, another Hedgehogian therapist.
And, indeed, all women, at least once, even Carla Bruni, have lived through the kind of psychological self-denigration that Renée inflicts on herself in the opening scene of the book. The ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part (Renée smells of cabbage soup but reads Husserl) constitutes one of the book’s operative factors.
So what do the patients think? Naturally they are not required to hand in a book report to their therapists, but rather to elaborate their impressions freely? “This novel encouraged me not to judge people on the basis of their social standing or their appearances and to look for hidden qualities in each person. In this book, a sophisticated Japanese man ends up uncovering the interior riches of Renée,” confides Angèle. “The characters in the book make decisions and carry them through, without worrying about social conventions,” adds Sabine. On a more practical level, another patient, fascinated by the character Monsieur Ozu, who hails from Japan, managed to overcome his fear of flying and he’ll soon be taking off for Japan…
That same Japan where, deservedly, Muriel Barbery is enjoying a few happy days with her husband, after having recently traveled to New Zealand. Her plump royalties have allowed her to take a long leave of absence. Right now, they are promenading in Kyoto, camera in hand. Though she may have taken a vow of discretion before the media, Muriel Barbery is nonetheless observing, from a distance and in silence, the nascent stirrings of Hedgehog Therapy—not without a certain degree of bemusement and surprise. Though perhaps her husband, Stéphane, to whom she dedicated the book, and with whom she conceived its structure, will be less surprised. His profession? Psychologist.
The Discreet Charm of Muriel Barbery
By Mohammed Aïssaoui
Le Figaro (France)
October 15, 2007
The Elegance of the Hedgehog’s success story resembles nothing if not the novel’s author herself: discreet, surprising, and pleasant. In the last few months, the novel has turned into a literary UFO, subject of long dinner party conversations. After its publication in September 2006, and despite the dominance of the panzer tank, Jonathan Littel, on the literary scene, Barbery’s novel has sold almost 200,000 copies in France. A revelation, especially considering that typically a bestseller comes off the presses with a flurry of attention and reaches the top of the lists fast. Muriel Barbery’s story is exactly the opposite: there was no sign of the novel on the bestseller lists two weeks after its publication, then it made a quiet debut and slowly, steadily, crept its way up the list, making it necessary to go back to the printers thirty times. Something like this happens once every ten years!
…Even more surprising than the book’s success is the author’s technique. She waits to hear “a voice.”
“I don’t know where this voice comes from,” says Barbery. “But it is essential for me to start writing.”
“And whose voice is this?”
“Some have told me, ‘it’s mine.’”
…Though the author claims to write in a disorderly manner, the alternating narrative structure of Hedgehog is impressively meticulous, and the characters have evidently been researched with care and intelligence; they are well realized and vivid.
Appearances can be deceptive: this is one of the book’s messages. The writing is succinct, unusual, light yet erudite. And the story approaches that of a fable, but without the puerile elements and with a little extra touch of impertinence.