January 2010

Cass Daubenspeck

Past Perfect

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

It has been a very long time since I found a novel so happy, sad, sarcastic, and meaningful that fat tears of catharsis came out as I finished the final chapter of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I should have expected it, though, from a philosopher.

In real life, that's what author Muriel Barbery is: a philosopher and teacher at the Ecole Normale Superiore, a premium academic institution in the seventh district of Paris, near the luxury apartment building where her novel is set.

It’s here where the reader meets the two narrators: a precocious 12-year-old girl named Paloma, whose wealthy family lives on the fifth floor of the building, and the building's concierge, Renee. Paloma, whose chapters are mostly in diary format, is an interesting girl. Like any left-leaning socially-aware young person with a high IQ, she can’t stand her rich family: their hypocrisy, their over-education, their pill-popping. She purposely behaves in opposition to them: drinks jasmine tea instead of coffee (“Coffee is a nasty person’s drink”) and feigns intellectual mediocrity in school. She also plots her own suicide on her thirteenth birthday as a way to escape the fate of growing up to become just like them. As sad and naïve as that idea seems, it is the most adolescent attitude she seems capable of demonstrating. The rest of the time, you just feel bad that she’s so snide and witty she can’t enjoy acting her age.

Renee, the concierge, is like Paloma’s shyer older sister. She, too, is dubious of life’s prospects, but instead of plotting her own suicide she shuts life out. Literally, she closes the door of her loge and inside it hides her love of art and Japanese film, her cat, Leo, and one semi-friendship with the housekeeper, Manuela.

Renee and Paloma have one major attribute in common: they possess a Buddhist distrust of intellect. But this belief is a major irony. While the two spend the novel chiding intelligence -- "Many intelligent people seem to have a bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself. They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid" -- they can’t escape the narrowness of their own minds to accede to self-forgetfulness. They call others selfish, but live completely internalized lives.

Barbery, like a good philosopher, has clearly spent some time thinking about solipsism, and talks the reader out of the contemplative, solitary life. While Renee and Paloma may be the unrivalled goddesses of their own minds, they gain nothing without human attachment. Renee, who has never experienced the freedom of being loved for who she really is, must take a chance and let her guard down. Paloma, whose cynicism has spread a shadow over all of life’s enjoyment, must open herself up to the world’s simple beauties.

This story is not a coming of age novel, exactly, but Renee and Paloma nevertheless “grow up,” struggling to get out of that suit of armor we all, at some time in our lives put on, in fear that we somehow need protecting from life instead of the inspiration to embrace it.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Europa Editions
ISBN: 1933372605
336 Pages