25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, on top of articles in the Chronicle and the New Yorker, there was a third moment for translation that took place last week—The Elegance of the Hedgehog has now been on the NY Times Bestseller list for 52-weeks. From the Europa Editions website:

Five years ago, when we opened Europa Editions, people seemed to think we’d lost our minds. We came from a decades-long experience as independent publishers in Italy, and the idea that we would go risking our reputations, and the economic well-being of our Italian house by opening an independent press in America, one largely dedicated to fiction in translation, struck many friends and colleagues as mere foolhardiness, or perhaps the early signs of nascent senility. And maybe it was. But the idea that so many exceptional writers from abroad were not making their way to American readers due to resistance from the publishing industry itself, resistance that is as hard to explain as it is to overcome, was a siren song too seductive and intriguing to ignore. We founded Europa Editions with the idea of publishing quality fiction and non-fiction, much of it by foreign authors who were not otherwise being considered by the majority of American houses. Our project was as much a cultural enterprise as a business venture. We were convinced that dialogue between nations and cultures was more important than ever, and that this exchange was facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten. We remain true to this ideal today. [. . .]

Three years ago we read and acquired a book that is today celebrating one year (its first year?) on the New York Times best seller list: the unassuming story of a French concierge and a young girl who become friends. Beautifully written, with a sprinkle of philosophy, the book had just begun to receive attention in France. Its author was a relatively unknown professor of philosophy at a small school in Normandy. We knew as we began reading this book that we were on to something big. But we could never have imagined how big, nor dream that anything like what has happened would indeed happen.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been read by well over half a million people in America since its publication in September 2008. Naturally, not all of them have loved it, but those who have speak about it—on blogs and web sites, in reading groups, with booksellers, and in messages sent to its publisher—as a life-changing book, one that, for the beauty of its writing and the story it tells, has moved them deeply. It is difficult and potentially ruinous to examine too closely the anatomy of a bestseller. All we are inclined to say about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the characteristics that have made of it a best seller is that the book has touched a nerve in readers; its message responds to a need that apparently is widely felt at this moment. And not only by American readers: wherever it has been published, readers have embraced this remarkable book. It has sold over two million copies in France, one million in Italy, and millions more in the thirty odd countries in which it has been published. Much of this success has come about not through sophisticated or costly publicity, not through the designs of some marketing wizard, but simply by word of mouth: readers talking with other readers about a book they loved.

Congrats to Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson, and Europa Editions!

13 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We just posted a review by Monica Carter of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions), translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

Monica works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and runs the phenomenal blog Salonica — Exploit. Explore. Examine., which is dedicated to international literature. She recently visited Paris, and has a series of posts reviewing Parisian books (including Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, and Queneau’s _The Last Days). Definitely worth checking out on a daily basis. . . .

Well, in terms of the review of Barbery’s novel, here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

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. [Click here for the rest.]

2 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.

Barbery introduces not one, but two narrators that are both extremely intelligent and coincidentally reside in the same building at 7, rue de Grenelle (that’s the Left Bank, for those of you not in the Parisian geographical know). First we meet Renée Michel, the fifty-four self-described unattractive but autodidactic concierge who hides her intelligence from the privileged and oblivious tenants of her building. Then we meet Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old genius who lives with her family on the second floor and despises their wealth and petty distractions of upper-class French society. Driven to fatalism by her inane family and their motives as rich buffoons, and also by the idea of her dismal future which is due only to “all this good fortune and all this wealth,” Paloma decides that the only thing to do on her thirteenth birthday is kill herself and set fire to the apartment which her family loves so dearly. Quite a dour outlook for a twelve year-old who is “supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else.” So we have alternating über-intelligent narrators that are disregarded by the preoccupied wealthy inhabitants of the building. But Barbery has the narrators present themselves as stereotypes, so as to not be suspected of fulfilling any expectations, as we witness early on in the novel with Renée:

Because I am rarely friendly—though always polite—I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. And since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so it has been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions that have been covered in crochet cases.

And similarly with Paloma:

Well, the fact is I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent, in fact. Even now, if you look at children my age, there’s an abyss. And since I don’t really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family—an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace—I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.

And while Renée and Paloma try to appear as French stereotypes, what becomes the most stereotypical is Barbery’s flat, broad representation of “the rich” whose presence is merely to provide an unlikeable nemesis for our two narrators. Perhaps it is necessary to understand the nuances of Parisian classism, but the self-consumed wealthy elitist is known in all societies and gives us a hollow, stock cliché that isn’t quite believable. It serves Renée’s character better than Paloma’s—precisely because there is a class difference, which is deftly handled when Renée remembers her husband’s passing:

Lucien’s illness didn’t strike anyone as being worthy of interest. To reach people it must seem that the hoi polloi—perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire—experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him everyday in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a nonentity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury or artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than a shudder of revolt.

Whereas with Paloma doesn’t appreciate her parents, which makes her seem as vacuous and narcissistic as, ahem, a stereotypical rich person:

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore, as good as rich. My father is a parliamentarian and before that he was a minister: no doubt he’ll end up in the top spot, emptying out the wine cellar of the residence at the Hôtel de Lassay. As for my mother…Well, my mother isn’t exactly a genius but she is educated. She has a Ph.D. in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references . . .

We find Paloma less likeable and sustentative than Renée, making her role as narrator underdeveloped, which also renders the narrative uneven. Paloma does give us some glimpses of wit and depth with her notebook divided into two parts entitled Profound Thoughts and Journal of the Movement of the World. Even so, the reader does get the sense she enjoys normal adolescent interests like Manga. But the novel truly belongs to Renée who reads Husserl, loves American blockbusters, the Japanese director Ozu, and her best friend, the maid Manuela. We learn of Renée’s insecurities about class difference and her fear of presenting herself as a smart, well-read person with provocative and valid opinions.

What disrupts the complacent musings of Paloma and Madame Michel is the death of a resident and the arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. Enter the Eastern panacea for our narrators’ philosophical despair and loathing of Western wealth and social prejudices.

Finally, someone besides the reader to recognize Renée’s intellectual value and Paloma’s mental acuity and to satisfy both of their Japanese fixations. This is where the novel turns a bit mawkish and predictable. We like what Kakuro represents—a nice, intelligent person who seeks out other nice, intelligent people—and that he presents himself as person who actually likes Renée despite his own wealth and her lack of it. And for Paloma, Kakuro becomes what her parents cannot, a positive role model with money.

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.

There is a surprise towards the end that is done well by Barbery. Oddly, this denouement has the perfect amount of nostalgia, avoiding a saccharine and worn ending. Alison Anderson’s translation is capable, though quite literal. Having achieved “commercial success” makes this a fun and engaging read and the perfect introduction to the world of modern translated literature.

....
The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >

Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >