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.
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