The Elegance of the Hedgehog

To read my Movie Review of The Hedgehog (Le Hérisson, 2009), CLICK HERE.

It’s all about seeing and being seen.

the-elegance-of-the-hedgehog

Hailed as the French publishing phenomenon in recent years, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has maintained 102 weeks straight on France’s best seller lists since its publication in 2006, and sold over 1 million hardback copies in 2007.

Author Muriel Barbery has created an intellectual delicacy for us to savor.   She is a former philosophy teacher in France and is now living in Japan.   Only in France you may say, where philosophy is still a compulsory subject in schools.  But no, it’s an international sensation reaching as far as South Korea, translated into half a dozen languages, sold its film rights, and garnered several literary awards.  The ripples finally reached North America last September… why so late?

This modern tale takes place in a luxury apartment at 7 rue de Grenelle, a prestigious address in Paris.  Its eight exclusive units are home to the upper echelon of French society, the elite in politics, finance, lifestyle and education.

Renée Michel knows too well what this is like… she lives here, in the quarter especially meant for her, the concierge.   For twenty-seven years she has served the residents well.   She knows how to keep her job.  Although in her mind, she thinks of them as  “a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups”, she keeps her thoughts very private, sharing only with her friend Manuela, the cleaning maid.

Renée’s self description may say just about what other people see on the outside, if they even care to look at her:

I am fifty-four years old… I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and… I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant.  I live alone with my cat…

For some reasons, these words attracted me to buy and read this book in the first place.  Herein lies the excitement.   The reader soon discovers that Renée is an autodidact.  A devoted library user, she studies on her own, philosophy, literature, history, art, semantics,  Japanese culture…  She avidly reads Kant, Proust, and Husserl after work,  contemplates phenomenology during work, and considers it not worth her while at either.  She names her cat Leo after her favorite writer Tolstoy.  On top of her eclectic reading, she listens to Mozart, Mahler, and Eminem.  She is a fan of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu whose works formed the classics of Japanese cinema.  And she loves Vermeer.

To survive in the social pecking order, Renée has learned to be clandestine.

Cut to Paloma Josse who lives on the fifth floor.  She is the 12 year-old daughter of a parliamentarian and his wife, who holds a Ph. D in literature.  Paloma’s older sister is a graduate student of philosophy.   But within this cocoon of sheltered upper-class family, Paloma might well be the most lucid of them all.   Her preoccupation is with the search beyond the status quo, the quest for meaning in this whole idea called life.  Among her many profound thoughts is this one:

People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl.

Alas, she concludes in her 12 year-old mind, albeit being a precocious savant, that there isn’t much for her to stay on.  To escape her fate in the fish bowl, she is contemplating committing suicide on her 13th birthday coming up in a few months.

The book alternates between the ruminations of Renée and Paloma. Their sharp commentaries present some incisive, and at times, hilarious social satires.  Their personal reflections are perceptive and poignant.

Within the confines of the luxury abode, all seems to be mundane, routine, and hierarchical.  Until one day, a new tenant moves in.  He is Kakuro Ozu.  His presence at 7 rue de Grenelle changes the lives of both Renée and Paloma in a most extraordinary way.  For the first time in their lives, they have been seen, and appreciated.

Kakuro Ozu is a Japanese gentleman in his 60’s.  From his first contact with Renée, the moment she lets the first line of Anna Karenina slip out of her tongue, Kakuro knows he has discovered a hidden treasure.  This is more than a concierge he is looking at.  No, he does not respect her more for the books she has read, but for the lucidity of her insights.

It’s all about seeking beauty in the mundane.

… like viewing a Vermeer in the hustle and bustle of the city, or listening to Bach in the subway, or watching films that evoke flashes of transcendence…. yes, we’ve all experienced those moments.

Kakuro shares with Renée the ability to notice Art in the most ordinary of life.  What does she see in Ozu’s film The Munekata Sisters?  The camellia on the moss.

True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.”

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue procelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?

It’s all about beholding eternity in the temporal.

And what beauty, what fate, it is to find someone who has named his cats Kitty and Levin, from Anna Karenina, while yours is Leo, someone who appreciates the meaning behind 17th C. Dutch still-life, someone who seeks the authentic human face behind the façade of social norms… someone whose toilet, even, exuberates with Mozart’s Confutati?

And oh… what an experience in that bathroom at Kakuro’s suite.  Kudos to Alison Anderson, I’ve totally forgotten that I’m reading a translation.  Just one of the rare cases that shows humor can be translated.  And that night, how gratifying for Renée to find so much inspiration in a Dutch painting, a sliding door, a bowl of ramen noodles…

What congruence links a Claesz, a Raphael, a Rubens, and a Hopper?

Are there universals?

And 12 year-old Paloma, with her quest for meaning and authenticity, is soon confronted with something much more engrossing than she had started out to seek…

At times LOL funny, at times, absorbingly heart-breaking.  This is one of the rare occasions where I had tears welled up in my eyes as I came to the end, an ending so powerful it propelled me to start from the beginning again.

~ ~ ~½ Ripples

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, translation published by Europa Editions, 2008, 325 pages.

***

Endnote:

If there are no universals, why would we experience such delight when someone else shares our joy in discovering that same beauty?  Why would we seek beauty in the first place?

“… He has set eternity in their heart…”  — Ecclesiastes 3: 11

***

To read my review of Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, CLICK HERE.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

27 thoughts on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

  1. Arti,

    I have wanted to read this book for a while, if only because the title is so intriguing. Interesting that philosophy remains a compulsory study in France; we don’t do enough of it here…To answer your question(very vaguely)I believe there are certain universals: creation myths, moon myths, stories told around fires to explain things beyond comprehension, all developing at the same time in very different places with little or no communication (yeah, I am going quite a ways back in history). That has always fascinated . Cultural anthropology. Isn’t reading (or writing) a form of cultural anthropology? Now I have to go think….This was a wonderful review. Thank you.

    ds,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, it seems in N. Am, well, in Canada anyways, the humanities are definitely being swept aside in schools. Philosophy as a compulsory subject? It’s not even a subject.
    And yes, I believe there are universals… since we all come from the same Source.

    I thought about your ‘Japanese Literature Challenge’ as I wrote this post. This book may not be Japanese lit, it has an admirable Japanese character, and written by an author who definitely appreciates Japan that she has moved there to live. Do read it, I’m sure you’ll like it.

    Arti

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    1. Arti,

      Okay, give me even more compelling reasons to read this book–can you give me the time as well (I’m about to sign on for another challenge. Shoot me!)
      But to clarify the Japanese Literature Challenge belongs to Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza (http://dolcebellezza.wordpress.com) This is her third year running it, and there is still plenty of time if you wish to join–only one book required! Think about it…

      ds,

      Of course… it’s Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge. What I meant was that since you’re reading Japanese Literature for the JLC, you might find this book interesting even though it’s not ‘Japanese Lit’ per se. And I’m not too sure what you meant by ‘the time’. There’s really no time limit here, whenever you feel like reading a good book, that’s all. Definitely not a ‘reading challenge’. And I know how ‘time limit’ can spoil one’s appetite for anything that’s worthwhile. Take your time, this one sure needs some chewing and savoring.

      Arti

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      1. Arti,
        I’m sorry. I only meant the time to read the book. I do love the books that require “chewing and savoring” best, and I do really, really, really want to read this one. And I know it will wait. That is one of the nice things about books; they are patient.

        ds,

        The book is 325 pages long and quite easy to read, although there are philosophical thoughts to plow through, they’re interesting and entertaining even. I’d give it a week or so, it all depends on how much time you have per day to read.

        Arti

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  2. A lovely review of a book I hadn’t heard of. I’m sure part of its immediate appeal is that I’m 62 and live alone with my cat – not to mention being equally poor, discreet and insignificant!

    I’m intrigued you made no mention of the hedgehog. I have some suspicions about the importance of the title, but will keep those to myself until I’ve read the book.

    I did think about this for a while:

    “It’s all about seeking beauty in the mundane.
    … like viewing a Vermeer in the hustle and bustle of the city, or listening to Bach in the subway, or watching films that evoke flashes of transcendence….”

    My only caveat would be that the city, the subway, the farm, the most common of homes – all the press of daily life – are able to contain and convey beauty as surely as “Art”. Vermeer, Bach, Tolstoy and all the rest are rightly esteemed. I love the artists among us as much as anyone. Still, I sometimes wonder if their value isn’t partly that they sensitize us to smaller beauties we might not otherwise notice.

    That, of course, brings us directly to the point about the transformative experience of being “seen” for both Paloma and Renee. The notion that being truly seen by another can be redemptive is woven through scripture, literature and psychology. It’s fun to imagine a secular culture like France enamoured of such a traditionally “spiritual” theme!

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    1. Linda,

      You’re right. If the book is just advocating ‘high culture’ like the arts and classical music, then it is defeating its own purpose. This is exactly the point: Art can be found in the mundane, from the quotes: “… the camellias against the moss, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup… the sudden flowering of pure beauty”, that’s Art. And later: “a sliding door, a bowl of noodles” can inspire as much as the Dutch painting.

      Further, Vermeer, or Bach, or Ozu are not Art in themselves, but the ideas, longing and perspectives they convey through their works that are transcending the mundane (the material world: the inanimate canvas, the impersonal subway, the hustle and bustle of urban streets). Similarly, noticing the human face behind the ‘ugly, short, and plump’ physique is beauty in itself.

      Lastly, you’ve made a very perceptive observation. Yes, it’s all about healing too. I don’t want to give out too much. Being seen sure has its redemptive significance. Ironically, Paloma is an atheist. But in Renee and Kakuro, she sees something that’s transcending. You know, it’s been mentioned that a psychoanalyst prescribed this book rather than Prozac to his patients.

      My Endnotes aim at addressing the query of why the secular would seek the transcending and eternal… herein lies one evidence of the universals.

      Arti

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  3. My goodness, your review and the comments are making my head spin, with excitement. I was first reminded of the wonderful short story I read recently, and as is my way, I have forgotten the author and title. It’s by a literary giant about a butler who makes the salon of a not-so-interesting man a great success. Do you remember what I’m thinking of?

    I’m also reminded of your Josh Bell post about recognizing beauty out of context, and the National Geographic experiment about what makes a face beautiful. As someone who looks for beauty even in “ugly” things and people, I am always conscious of comparisons and what stirs me inside. I think there must be universals for joy and beauty. I agree with you that Art is conveying the human experience in transcendent ways, yet that doesn’t mean life is not also Art. The trick is finding a way to recognize Beauty in each other, as the characters in this story have done, finding the universal connection. I usually ask myself before posting at my blog, Is this universally interesting?

    And wow that verse you quoted at the end, that also conjured a whole past lifetime of church and mission work where that line was the basis for proselytizing. I like it in this context better, for thinking of eternity as a secular concept, beneath religious tenets.

    What is Life? What is the human exchange? What is Art? I think it is all One.

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    1. Ruth,

      I’m intrigued… no, I’m not sure which short story you meant, but I sure like to find out and read it! I think Art can be discovered, created or captured in the mundane. We just need to be sensitized to it and be quiet enough to ponder and appreciate. A good example is your own photos of the lake and the boat. It’s your particular POV that has captured the serenity and meditative environs. You’ve seen beauty in the raw. And that’s in the natural environment. I’m sure we can notice beauty everywhere, not just visually, but in some intangible ways, like a good, pure heart, love, integrity… again, evidences of universals… transcendence in the mundane. Your last paragraph is worthy of a thousand posts! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Like

  4. Thank you for your very insightful and beautifully written post on Hedgehogs. I love this book so much. I was hooked as soon as I heard the title.

    To me the book is about a lot of things. You are right it is about seeing beauty in the mundane. To me it is very much about the limiting power of stereotypes and perhaps the impossibility of really avoiding them. It is also about the transformative power of the reading life. I tried to talk about some of these issues in my blog. I was in fact inspired to begin a blog partially devoted to the literary portrayal of the reading life by this book-

    mel u,

    The book certainly offers multiple musings… not the least the shattering of stereotypes. I’ve enjoyed reading your review of the book. You’ve made some very insightful observations… the characters, of course, are not perfect. An interesting project you’ve started over there. I’ll definitely visit again. Thanks for leaving your comments here.

    Arti

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  5. I really loved this book! You write about the characters beautifully. It’s such a wise book, I thought, and it taught me a lot of good stuff about mortality and change and impermanence.

    Dorothy,

    Isn’t it a gem? Although there are some tougher soils to plow through at times, it’s all part of digging up a treasure, right? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Arti

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  6. Arti, the same words that prompted you to buy and read this book did the same to me! (I’m not sure if you’ve found my post yet. Just click on Muriel Barbery in the authors list on my sidebar.) It made me cry, too. Such a powerful book. I’m no expert in philosophy but I absolutely love reading about it.

    And I agree with you completely.. that there are universals because we all came from the same Source.

    Like

    1. Claire,

      What kindred spirits! First, I think those self-deprecating descriptions of Renée’s speak to a lot of us… Ha! Just too funny. And, yes, I’m glad you share the view of the same Source and like another reader says, the verse from Eccl. certainly speaks to the reason for such universals.

      I’ll definitely check out your review on the book.

      And yes, I’m looking forward to her ‘Gourmet Rhapsody’, which BTW is her first novel. It’s not translated into English until now (I guess maybe riding the waves of Hedgehog’s success). I can’t wait to read her take on French food, after Julie and Julia!

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  7. One of life’s marvels is that there is always another book. Always one to watch out for, experience, eat up, ponder, share.

    I have never ever heard of this book and wonder if I live in a fishbowl??!!!

    And I had just made a deal with myself to work through the TBR stack and not touch, not look, not even wander into a place where there are more and other books. Ahahaha. Just shoot me. Impossible.

    And now this apparent gem. Oh yes, I believe you! I ate up this review. I haven’t read anything by a French writer nor indeed about France in ages yet dare call myself a francophile! I’ll just slip the title and author into my planner.

    I am intrigued by “universals” in part because they are such a relief to discover, especially after a day in the corporate world where I tend to wear a uniform of focus in order to lead a team to some sort of (profitable) success. And then come home to family and friends and have “aha” experiences and heady laughs over commonalities (aka universals).

    Philosophy? 7 Rue de Grenelle? I have to go refresh. I must find this book.

    As for finding art in everything, in the everyday and in the surprise of what artists can individually offer up, oh yes. It fills us up and cools us down and incites and excites even if we’re not processing it exactly… and what a treat to be a visual artist, I think. (sometimes I tack my writing to the wall. It doesn’t quite work, though, as visual art

    To be seen? that’s a scary thing in a lot of ways. I understand Paloma’s wish for it, in terms of “counting, being part of the crowd, more of a peer thing even at her age. As for the concierge, I would think it would be more in terms of being loved.

    Well, I’ll just have to read the book! Merci mille fois for this one! (I know I often say that, but really, you find great stuff!)

    Like

    1. oh,

      It is for comments such as this that we blog: to be heard. I thank you so much for your open reception of my review and your kind words. And if you’re one who’s not satisfied with ‘chick lit’, (although I know sometimes we do need them, as a breather, just like chick flicks, right?), then this one’s for you.

      And hey, what’s a TBR list if not just some reminders like a shopping list. We don’t go to the grocery store to get only those items on the list, right? How will our economy survive if nobody does any impulse buying?

      And know what, I haven’t started any of my loot from the used book sale I hauled back a few months ago… 40 of them!

      Last but not least, thanks for putting into words those serendipitous episodes in life: ‘aha moments’… it must be a huge fishbowl we’re in. Thanks for the laughs!

      Like

  8. I came to your blog after reading the comment you left in Ruth’s blog about J. Binoche and especially after reading that you actually met Michael Ondaatje. I also met him at a party given to him in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but there were so many people there that I did not have a chance to actually have a conversation with him. I have read and own every single book he wrote, plus all his poetry.
    I am very intrigued by your book review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and will order it from Amazon.
    I am glad I came to your blog.
    I live in Spain but have been in Portugal for the summer and right now I am spending the week end in the Alentejo on my way back to Madrid.

    Like

    1. Celeste,

      You’re a more well-read Ondaatje fan than I am… I’ve read only two of his works so far but after that reading at Banff Centre, I intend to indulge more of his writings, especially his memoir of growing up in Sri Lanka. I wrote about that interview in one of my recent posts ‘A Midsummer Day’s Dream’ if you’re interested.

      And for Juliette Binoche, she’s just a natural and of course, it takes some real gifted directors too, to bring out such talents. I’ve particularly enjoyed the special features in The English Patient DVD where director Minghella discussed how he turn MO’s book into screenplay. Admirable work! Your favorite scene is one of mine too… especially the music. I listen to the soundtrack of the movie in my car all the time!

      I’m so glad you’ve followed up on my comment at Ruth’s to my site. You have quite an impressive blog yourself, and quite a world traveller you are. Thank you for coming by here and leaving your comment. I wish this is the beginning of some mutual visiting!

      Like

  9. Hey, Arti! I found my old blog post with the name of the short story about the butler: “Brooksmith” by Henry James. Something in the back of my mind was saying it was James, and I was remembering right. You can read it on line here

    Ruth,

    Thanks! I’ll definitely check it out. And yes, I’m glad I met Celeste too!

    Arti

    Like

  10. I don’t read French books very often, but I read l’Elégance du Hérisson, as it was offered to me last Christmas. I read it and must say that I made it last… I didn’t want to finish it too fast. A delightful book to savour.
    Don’t go and see the movie. Not that it is a bad movie, but it adds nothing to the book. And I am not sure that if I hadn’t read the book before I saw the movie, it would make me feel like reading it.

    Claude,

    I’m sure it’s even more enjoyable reading Hedgehog in its original language… something that I regret I can’t do, despite being a Canadian (French is our other official language). And, I didn’t know the movie had already been made. I don’t think however, that it’ll be shown here anytime soon. considering it took three years for the book to be translated into English and sold here in N. Am. I’d be interested to see it though, to watch all the interesting characters interpreted on screen. Thanks for sharing!

    Arti
    P.S. I read that Kristin Scott Thomas is (will be?) performing in the musical A Little Night Music in Paris, have you by any chance seen it?

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  11. You have written a beautiful review Arti – totally in keeping with the essence of the book. I defy anybody to read this and not want to pick The Elegance of the Hedgehog up straight away! I know I now want to read it again and explore and savour everything I didn’t understand the first time around.

    I didn’t know

    .
    Tracey, Thanks for stopping by… glad you’re appreciating it. I’ve enjoyed the writing style and the subject matter it explores. And of course, it led me to Ozu.

    Arti

    Like

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