Haaretz: "Barbery herself was astonished by the reception her novel received."
Date: May 12 2009
The Prada haute couture store in Paris is located at number 7 on the elegant and fashionable Rue de Grenelle. In the world created by Muriel Barbery in her book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, however, that address belongs to a large, elegant urban villa comprising eight luxury apartments, a courtyard and garden. The two protagonists of the novel are Renee Michel, the residence's concierge, and Paloma, a gifted young girl who lives in one of the swanky apartments with her affluent parents and her pretentious sister.
The concierge, a 54-year-old widow who has worked in the building for 27 years, describes herself as a small, homely, fat woman with corns on her feet and ferocious halitosis, who has been poverty-stricken, unremarkable and withdrawn all her life. She is polite but rarely amiable - "the typical concierge par excellence." She does not like television but makes sure the set is on whenever someone enters her abode, so as not to spoil the stereotype of the boorish gatekeeper.
Paloma is at the other extreme: the daughter of a rich father, a member of the French parliament and a former cabinet minister. Her mother holds a doctorate in literature, although Paloma notes in her diary that the woman who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at dinner every evening is living proof that education can be an excellent fraud. Paloma is extremely intelligent for someone her age and intends to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
Both the concierge and the girl pretend to be complete dolts; their aim is to be unnoticeable, to appear invisible - the concierge because everyone expects her to be ignorant, and the bright young girl because she finds life pointless and the social class to which she belongs, decadent. Both of them detest not only the rich but also the phony intellectual snobs who waste the public's time and money. While the two live in the same building, they belong to different worlds. Their lives run on parallel tracks - until a Japanese tenant moves into the building, introduces them to each other and changes their ways of looking at the world.
When Barbery's novel came out in France two years ago, published by the prestigious Editions Gallimard, she became an overnight sensation. The book sold more than 1.3 million copies and stayed on the best-seller list for more than 100 weeks. It was also a best-seller in England, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United States. Translation rights have been sold to 36 countries, including Israel, where it was translated into Hebrew by Sharon Preminger and published by Keter. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has won several literary awards, including the coveted Prix des Librairies. The Guardian called the book "profound but accessible... Clever, informative and moving, it is essentially a crash course in philosophy interwoven with a platonic love story."
Barbery herself was astonished by the reception her novel received. "When I read the first reviews in the press, I was very surprised, because they called my novel a social satire and did not relate to the book's other characteristics. From my point of view, the societal aspect is secondary; it's window dressing. The window dressing is important, to be sure, but it is treated satirically. It is designed to be thought-provoking as well as amusing, and to serve as the platform for the real theme of the book: the question of the meaning of life, love, art and the wonders of the spirit. I think that if the book were just a long treatise on class warfare, it would not have had this great an impact."
Barbery was born in Casablanca and raised in Paris. Her first book, Une Gourmandise, was published in Hebrew by Zmora-Bitan in 2002 (it will be published in English this year by Europa Editions). She is a professor of philosophy, and taught philosophy when she had no choice and had to make a living.
Today, she lives in Japan. This would come as no surprise to anyone who has read her book: It reflects her total enchantment with Japanese culture, which she contrasts repeatedly to the French culture she despises.
"France is a country of classes, there is no disputing that," Barbery said. "I belong to the intellectual wing of the middle class. My parents were French teachers in middle school and high school; the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie that are depicted in the novel I observed only from the outside, during my years at university. But that glimpse of class inequality shook me to the core with its hopelessness and cruelty. The French have a clear tendency to behave compartmentally, with dominance-subservience relationships: dominance on the part of the wealthy, as well as on the part of intellectuals, which often goes hand-in-hand with incredible contempt and intolerance for a country that takes pride in its long and illustrious democratic tradition.
"I'm really not saying anything new - simply that the intelligentsia is not the exclusive preserve of culturally advantaged classes, and that money does not bestow nobility on a person. These things are obvious, but it is vital that they be expressed."
Barbery relates that her novel's success has enabled her to realize some of her dreams - for example, the dream of living in Japan. She has been living in Kyoto for more than a year and says that she and her husband are impressed beyond their expectations by life there.
"Japanese culture is ancient and very refined," she said. "It combines simplicity of means with complexity of ends, and it has an extraordinary love for, and inclination toward, beauty and elevation of the spirit. It is clear to us that we are still on the threshold of our journey of discovery."
With the success of her book she has given up teaching. "I can now devote myself entirely to writing. This makes things much easier for me.
"There are certain aspects of teaching that tempt me, but I can't stand academia. The great philosophical texts are jewels, and they resonate within us deeply and continuously. But my philosophical studies completely contradicted this intellectual life: The university was sclerotic, the history of philosophy was static, and arrogant rhetorical posturing displaced authentic thinking."
The two heroines conceal their intelligence. Is writing an act of revelation or concealment?
"'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' is a novel; the characters and the situations are purely fictional. And for me, writing is intensely pleasurable - inter alia, because it allows you to live a life that is different from your own. I do not think that writing is an act either of revelation or concealment; it is a force for the sublimation of events and emotions, for the transformation of the writer's intimate states of consciousness into universal feelings.
"This novel is a reflection of our personal tastes, those of my husband and myself - of our spiritual world, and of our cultural, literary, philosophical and aesthetic sensibilities. All of these underwent a metamorphosis through the magic of writing and bec