Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery 
Alison Anderson (Translator)
Europa Editions, 2008
Trade Paperback,


An enchanting New York Times and international bestseller and award-winner about life, art, literature, philosophy, culture, class, privilege, and power, seen through the eyes of a 54-year old French concierge and a precocious but troubled 12-year-old girl.
Renée Michel is the 54-year-old concierge of a luxury Paris apartment building. Her exterior (“short, ugly, and plump”) and demeanor (“poor, discreet, and insignificant”) belie her keen, questing mind and profound erudition. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old genius who behaves as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. She plans to kill herself on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday.
Both Renée and Paloma hide their true talents and finest qualities from the bourgeois families around them, until a wealthy Japanese gentleman named Ozu moves into building. Only he sees through them, perceiving the secret that haunts Renée, winning Paloma's trust, and helping the two discover their kindred souls. Moving, funny, tender, and triumphant, Barbery's novel exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

My Thoughts:

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery the hedgehog is 54-year-old concierge Renee Michel. As described by our second narrator, twelve year old Paloma Josse:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant. pg. 143

Renee describes herself as a short, ugly and plump widow with bunions and no education who is poor, discreet, and insignificant. But privately we know she has hidden her intelligence. She is well read. She has educated herself and satisfied her curiosity about literature, art, music, and philosophy. Her one friend is Manuela, a Portuguese cleaning lady who stops by for tea each day.

Unknown to her in the beginning is that there is another very intelligent resident of the building: twelve and a half year old Paloma Josse. Paloma is despairing of her lot in life as a privileged member of society and plans to commit suicide when she turns thirteen. Before she does, however, she is secretly writing two journals: Profound Thoughts and Journal of the Movement of the World.

Both Renee and Paloma have chosen to isolate themselves from the world and hide their true potential. Thoughts of both are shared in the first person. The novel alternates between the two voices. While they are distinct, and Paloma's journal entries are titled and numbered, alternate type faces are used to further set a distinction between the two narrators. A new resident in the building brings these two together and opens up new possibilities in their lives beyond their isolation and despair for society.

Author Muriel Barbery is a philosopher and teacher at the Ecole Normale Superiore,  in Paris, which explains much of the novels copious contemplation of philosophy.  At times it may verge on  dissuading you from the fundamental narrative - but stick with it. These are two isolated people who desperately want to connect to someone else even though they are blind to this need. I found the writing insightful and deserving of the many accolades The Elegance of the Hedgehog received when it was first published.

Very Highly Recommended


For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hotel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. pg. 17

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. pg. 17

I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd. pg. 23

It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are. pg. 24

We are, basically, programmed to believe in something that doesn’t exist, because we are living creatures; we don’t want to suffer. So we spend all our energy persuading ourselves that there are things that are worthwhile and that that is why life has meaning. I may be very intelligent, but I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to struggle against this biological tendency. When I join the adults in the rat race, will I still be able to confront this feeling of absurdity? I don’t think so. That is why I’ve made up my mind: at the end of the school year, on the day I turn thirteen, June sixteenth, I will commit suicide. pg. 24-25

For those who have been favored by life's indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement. Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work.... Society's elect, those whom fate has spared from the servitude that is the lot of the poor, must, consequently, shoulder the double burden of worshipping and respecting the splendors of language. pg. 110

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.pg. 143

Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that's where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself, "Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious, rich and subtle!" pg. 158 

If you have but one friend, make sure you choose her well. pg. 263

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