Will Americans embrace a heroine who skulks like a spy among the intelligentsia, an apparently unlettered concierge who secretly disdains Husserl’s philosophy, adores Ozu’s films and is so passionate about Tolstoy she named her cat Leo? Or will Muriel Barbery’s studied yet appealing commercial hit be a purely European phenomenon, exposing a cultural fault line?
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” a best seller in France and several other countries, belongs to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer. (Alain de Botton’s handy guide “How Proust Can Change Your Life” comes to mind.) The novel’s two narrators alternate chapters, but the book is dominated by Renée, a widowed concierge in her 50s who calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody. She is also an autodidact — “a permanent traitor to my archetype,” as she drolly puts it — who takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but thinks life will be easier if she never lets her knowledge show. Even the slippers she wears as camouflage, she says, are so typical, “only the coalition between a baguette and a beret could possibly contend in the domain of cliché.”
Her unlikely counterpart is Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old whose family lives in the fashionable building Renée cares for. Paloma believes the world is so meaningless that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.
Renée’s story is addressed to no one (that is, to us), while Paloma’s takes the form of a notebook crammed with what she labels “profound thoughts.” Both create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renée with erudition and Paloma with adolescent brio. Neither character realizes they share such similar views, from “the pointlessness of my existence,” as Renée says, to their affection for Japanese culture. Paloma adores reading manga, while Renée goes into raptures over an Ozu scene in which the violet mountains of Kyoto become a soul-saving vision of beauty.
Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her politician father and Flaubert-quoting mother, while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty in Proustian moments of elongated time. What Renée calls “a suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” Paloma experiences while watching a rosebud fall. “It’s something to do with time, not space,” she says. “Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it.” And, exceedingly self-concerned though they are, each may be less perceptive about herself than about anything around her.
Especially in the novel’s early stretch, Barbery, a professor of philosophy, seems too clever for her own good. (This is her second novel; her well-received first, “Une Gourmandise,” will appear in English translation next year.) Her narrators mirror each other so neatly, the pattern threatens to become more calculated than graceful. Her brief chapters, more essays than fiction, so carefully build in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs. In just a few pages, Renée offers a mini-treatise on phenomenology.
Only one reference is missing. The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. Yet there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all. (What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”
Even when the novel is most essayistic, the narrators’ kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson’s fluent translation) propel us ahead. And the lives of both characters perk up when the rich, mysterious, charmingly attentive Mr. Ozu moves into the building. His name alone is enough to tantalize Renée, and he doesn’t disappoint her. “You pace up and down a corridor and suddenly enter a room full of light,” she says of their friendship, and his presence also brightens the book, adding emotion and an actual story. Quite near the end, Renée and Paloma become friends, too, and Barbery glides ahead more buoyantly than before, displaying her flair as a novelist
Naturally, such a philosophical fiction resolves some issues of life and death for its characters. The shallower question of best-sellerdom may come down to marketing. But the fate of this quirky European success might also defy or reinforce just the sort of baguette-and-beret stereotypes Renée finds so obvious and so true — oh, those philosophical French!
Caryn James, the author of the novels “What Caroline Knew” and “Glorie,” is at work on two nonfiction books.