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Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. (France, Europa Editions)

Based in part on choice editorial selections and in part on savvy marketing, Europa Editions has a knack for building huge audiences for their translations. And the independent stores love them. Love them so much in fact that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog landed on the independent booksellers bestseller list.

Doesn’t hurt that this book has been getting reviewed everywhere.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very approachable, engaging book featuring two bookishly intelligent characters: Renée Michel, an aging concierge who hides her intellectual pursuits from all of the residents of the swanky apartment building where she works, and Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to kill herself.

In alternating chapters, Barbery (and by extension, her excellent translator Alison Anderson, who does a marvelous job capturing the voices of these characters) gives life to these two characters, allowing the reader to be fully immersed into the character’s head and various psychological issues. This sample is a good example of the tone, and subject of the book.

Monica Carter reviewed this for us, and touches on this novel’s wide appeal:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [. . .]

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

In addition to the sample I linked to above, the Europa page for this book also includes a short interview with Barbery:

Your concierge, on the other hand, is an expert on Tolstoy, but also on philosophy. And even the teenaged Paloma, in her own way, expresses a propensity for abstract speculation.

MB: I followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy. I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn’t work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.

In this novel, erudite citations are side by side with references to comic books or the movies, and not just art house movies but commercial blockbusters.

MB: Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment. Why deny oneself these things? I am not afraid of eclecticism.



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