Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I hardly know where to begin with this review. Every once in a great while – ten years? twenty? – a book comes along that combines all the best things about literature: characters who are interesting, sympathetic, emotionally complex, with intelligence, élan, and a clear perspective on the world around them, and a story that won’t allow the reader to put down the book, all the while making the approaching end something to be delayed. My only regret is that I cannot read Barbery in the original language.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of Renée Michel, who says of herself, “I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet” with “the breath of a mammoth” (19). She has served as concierge for an upscale condo building in Paris for twenty-seven years. Renée also refers to herself as “poor, discreet, and insignificant” (18). Despite all this, she is extremely intelligent and incredibly well-read across an amazingly eclectic selection of literature, philosophy, history, art, and politics.

Living with her parents and an older sister in one of the eight luxury apartments is Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, June 16th. Paloma describes herself as “Exceptionally intelligent” (23). Paloma likes few things more than reading, and she, too, is incredibly well-read for someone her age.

What these two share amounts to an obsessive desire to hide their intelligence from the world. Renée does so because of her position as a concierge, “since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour” (19), and Paloma does so because “an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace” (23).

The lives of these two characters intersect in a surprising and unforgettable way. Elegance represents one of the finest examples of the psychological novel I have ever read. This complicated genre examines the “invisible life” of a character, who employs an interior monologue to describe her unspoken and subconscious existence. The list of practitioners of this form of the novel date back to Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad up to James Joyce and William Faulkner. If this sounds dry and dull, I will admit it can be. But Barbery has defied that stereotype and written a magnificent, wonderful, and lovely book.

The story abounds with literary and cultural references. It does take a fair amount of concentration, but I can list ten or twelve chapters that I immediately re-read to absorb the full impact of the prose. When thinking about a cup of tea, Renée muses,

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment” (91).

What a wonderful line – “a jewel of infinity in a single moment.” Breathtaking prose like this occurs on nearly every page.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or the original title, L’Élégance du Hérisson, is clearly one of the finest novels I have read in many years. If you call yourself a reader, you must read this book. Now. Without delay. 10 stars. The highest possible rating.

--Chiron, 2/11/10

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