Every now and then a book comes along that is so off the beaten path, that so wholly and charmingly occupies its own space, that the world can’t help but stop and take notice.
The story behind the unlikely success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog –the international bestseller from French author Muriel Barbery—is as disarmingly appealing as the book itself, and Barbery revealed the journey behind the book’s success (via translator) to New York’s very own Adam Gopnik as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of a seemingly simple concierge who hides her artistic and philosophical proclivities from the upscale tenants who largely ignore her. The façade is broken when a young girl in the building—also hiding her gifts from the world— realizes there is more to the concierge than meets the eye. Their unlikely friendship bridges both age and class, spawning some sparkling conversation on everything from French food to the films of Ozu. Gopnik summed up the book well as “a unique combination of reflection, an essayist’s flair, and a philosopher contemplating every day life with comedy and humor.”
The Duchess of Guermantes Moment
Barbery said that after her first novel (Gourmet Rhapsody, available in English in September 2009), all other attempts at writing seemed fruitless. She assured the crowd that she was not “fishing for compliments,” (a phrase she uttered in English), expressing the fear that “I thought I would never write another novel, be one of those writers.”
Then one night, Barbery said, her first novel fell off of her bookshelf and fell open to one page, a page where “a concierge expresses herself in very concrete terms.”
“I remembered something my editor told me: in my first manuscript, I conceived of the concierge in a vulgar fashion, the way one traditionally imagines such a character,” she said. It was then that her editor gave her the grain of advice from which Hedgehog grew: “you are a novelist, a novelist can allow yourself the luxury of having your characters speak like the Duchess of Guermantes.”
“That was the spark that set me off,” Barbery said. “I wrote the first ten pages of the novel, and they have not changed one iota,” she smiled.
7 Rue de Grenelles
Gopnik asked Barbery about the street address that forms the backdrop for the book’s action: 7 Rue de Grenelles, a street in a high-end Parisian neighborhood. Barbery admitted the address was “chosen at random,” but “typical of the kind of French experience” she wanted to channel.
The choice came back to haunt her: when the book began to receive a lot of publicity, a photographer wanted to take a photo of Barbery in front of 7 Rue de Grenelles. When they arrived, they realized it was actually the address of a fashion boutique, the brand of which Barbery refused to mention, but, grace à Google, I found it here (hint: it begins with a “P” and ends with an “A”).
Writing as Liberation
Gopnik asked Barbery if she shared Renée the concierge’s tastes. “I have eclectic taste,” she acknowledged, “I always feel ashamed that some of my taste is not so ‘culturally correct.’”
“Writing a book is a great liberation, I was able to discuss all sorts of things which I like—she [Renée] was kind enough to let me do that,” she laughed.
“I must admit, I don’t know 5 minutes before I write something how things are going to happen, I see a trail and follow my intuition, it works out,” she said. “When I wrote this novel, I was looking for spokespeople for feelings and ideas I had, who felt very strong especially about my view on life,” Barbery said.
The Birth of Paloma
12-year old Paloma, to Gopnik, is “one of most wonderful adolescents in French literature.” Gopnik then brought up his conversation with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, during with the Nobel Laureate spoke about his admiration for J.D. Salinger’s depiction of adolescence.
“Is Salinger a writer you admire?” Gopnik asked. “No, but sure” she laughed.
Barbery admitted that the young girl appeared in the novel very late in the process: “I had written ¾ of Renée’s lines when she [Paloma] came into the story,” she said, referring to the scene where the girl goes to retrieve something from the concierge’s apartment.
Barbery confessed that her husband, whom she calls a “partner in writing,” reads “every draft that comes out of the printer.” He liked the girl in that scene, and suggested Barbery give her a bigger voice.
“You are lucky your husband reads all your drafts—my wife used to, then we had a child. Now she goes to the pediatrician and reads my work in magazine form,” Gopnik interjected (the latter comment received quite a few laughs from the crowd).
Barbery currently lives in Japan, and said “I first became interested in Japanese culture by my husband [sic]. When I met him, he was already in love with Japan, and I soon fell in love myself,” she said.
She cites the moment she fell in love with Japanese culture as the first time she saw Ozu’s Tokyo Story: “I was absolutely dazzled the first time I saw it: it was slow, the very heart of life itself,” she said. It had a “sense of beauty in its present state,” and “struck a responsive chord with me, as if we had been in cahoots for a long time,” she recalled (’cahoots” is the inadequate word used by her translator—I prefer “communing!”)
Like the author, both of the main characters in the book are drawn to Japanese culture: Paloma loves sushi and hates French food, while Renée loves the films of Ozu.
“When I wrote The Elegance of the Hedgehog I had never set food in Japan, and I was desperately seeking a job in Japan and wasn’t finding it,” Barbery said. “So when my editor told me he was publishing my second novel and asked me what advance I wanted, I assumed it had to be a very small advance, so I asked for two weeks in Japan,” she said.
“The two of us went to Kyoto, trembling with emotion at the idea of setting foot on Japanese soil and we fell in love [with Japan],” Barbery remembers.“Dreams come true,” Barbery said happily, “We’ve been living in Japan for a year and a few months and we are staying!”
Barbery said the she is French in the question of language, as Frenchmen (and women) “faire beaucoup avec beaucoup,” (accomplish a lot with a lot) whereas the Japanese “faire beaucoup avec très peu,” (accomplish a lot with a little).
“One of my great fears in studying Japanese is that I’ll lose some of my fluidity I had in French,” she said. To remedy the problem, she brought several French books with her to Japan from which she derives “linguistic pleasure.”
What are the French books she cannot live without? One of her favorites is Liasons Dangeureuses by Laclos. Barbery says she loves the style, not the plot, of the erotic epistolary novel, and admits that when she first read it at a young age, she didn’t understand a good deal of the book’s undertones. What she does share from her first reading is how she “marveled at the purity of the French, something so generous,” she said. To her, it is reminiscent of a courtly French language that is long gone.
To round out her cache of French titles, she packed a compilation of the plays of Racine, a copy of the complete works of Flaubert (“There is no better way to stay connected to the French language than to read Flaubert from time to time,” she insists), and, as a “counterpoint,” French detective novels .
An Unlikely Success Story
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was first published in September of 2006 in France with a print run of 4,000 copies, Barbery said. “My husband and I prayed all copies sold, none would go to the pyre,” she joked.
She recalls her husband’s reaction to reading the first page of the first chapter of Hedgehog: “A first chapter that starts with Marx, hubris… [and] CGT, can’t work.”
She herself said: “I don’t see anything exceptional in it, I still don’t.”
The book has since sold over one million copies in France alone, and has been translated into multiple languages. Italy’s Le Figaro has called it “the publishing phenomenon of the decade.” If the book’s comparisons to Proust are any indication, Barbery’s work will live much longer than that.
On That Controversial Final Scene:
“As is always case, my husband suggested the final scene,” Barbery said.
“When I was writing the scene, I experienced a tremor, a burst of emotion, which is always the guiding light by which I write,” she said. “I received a lot of mail for that last scene, I feel that indignation, too.”
Readers have suggested alternative endings, she says, some of them “very interesting, but those were not mine,” Barbery said.
A novel is not a political manifesto, not something you defend, it is something you write, and in my case something I wrote very intuitively,” she mused. “When I write I don’t think of the reader.” “For me,” she said, “writing sort of trance, state of consciousness when intense concentration leads to the flow of completely unexpected things.”
And that sums up the magic of this boo: both in its unusual, memorable characters and its rocket to international fame, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is anything but expected.
Muriel Barbery was born in Casablanca, raised in France, and curently lives in Japan with her husband Stéphane.
Her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog is currently in second spot on the IndieBound bestseller list, which calculates book sales at independent bookstores across the county; and is in 13th position on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been a bestseller in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and in many other countries.
Barbery’s next book to appear in English is Gourmet Rhapsody, available in september 2009.