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Despair and Deliverance in Art, Literature, and Movement Of The World in Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance Of The Hedgehog”

Myra here.

I’ve had this book for nearly two years now, but didn’t feel that compelled to read it until after I finished reading Will Schwalbe’s The End Of Your Life Book Club. I read Barbery’s Life Of Elves last year while I was in Munich, but found it to be too meandering for my taste, despite the lovely language. When Schwalbe noted that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is essentially a book about characters who love reading books, I knew it was the perfect book to feature given our current reading theme.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

Written by:  Muriel Barbery Translated from the French by: Alison Anderson
Published by: Gallic, 2008
ISBN: 1906040184 (ISBN13: 9781906040185) Literary Awards: BTBA Best Translated Book Award Nominee for Fiction Longlist (2009), Prix des Libraires (2007), Brive-La-Gaillarde Readers Prize (2007), French-American Foundation Translation Prize Nominee for Fiction (2008), Prix Georges Brassens (2006), The International DUBLIN Literary Award for Shortlist (2010)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me. For this post, I took photos of pages and edited them using an iPhone app – or used Typorama for my favourite quotes.

There are just some books that come to you at the perfect time, and you feel that the universe must be telling you something of great significance. This is one such book for me. I feel immensely grateful because I have been reading these soul-enriching books one after the other, and they make my eyes sparkle in tears as I savour the beauty of quiet ruminations conveyed in such exquisite language.

An Erudite Concierge. Schwalbe was right in noting how much the characters in this story loved literature. There’s Madame Reneé Michel, the concierge in a Parisian apartment building where the very wealthy lived in predictable boredom and lifelessness, their vast apartments a testament to the vacuity in their souls. Reneé, however, is not your ordinary concierge. While she describes herself self-disparagingly as “poor, fat, and ugly” – she is also a deep thinker, a closet intellectual, an auto-didact whose senses are attuned to the beauty around her, despite the fact that she feels that she is not entitled to it because her station in life does not permit her to aspire to more than what the universe has provided her at birth. Yet, she reads.

It was through books that she found herself regardless of how much she desires total obscurity, to just blend into the pale walls and nondescript furniture, much like the way the oblivious inhabitants of 7 Rue de Grenelle generally perceived her. Most of the time, she doesn’t really mind, as she prefers the company of the books that she borrows from the library anyway.

A Suicidal Twelve-Year-Old Genius Searching for the World’s Movement. I think it was really Paloma that made me fall in love with the story. I fall for stories where there are highly gifted individuals. Paloma is an old soul whose constant search for meaning leads her to conclude that despair is inevitable, based on the flawed, pill-popping, hopelessly-staid-and-proper people surrounding her. Yet, while she has decided to end her life by the time she turns thirteen, she is committed to documenting profundities that strike her, and so she keeps a journal where she writes down the movement of the world. Here is an example:

She is a young girl who is sensitive to life’s inherent contradictions and paradoxes; or in creative thinking parlance, she has what we call a tolerance for ambiguity. This hypersensitivity, however, is also what makes her feel an overwhelming sense of derision towards people with their decidedly superfluous thoughts, their pretensions, their studied inanities.

She is impatient with people who perceive only the functionality of certain things, like for example, grammar. When her teacher informed the class that the purpose of grammar was to make them read and write well, Paloma’s sensibilities were visibly shaken. She noted:

Over and above this reverence for language, Paloma also reflects on feelings of disenfranchisement, the sensation of being uprooted, the inability to locate one’s self against the larger scheme of things. She observed:

Unlikely Friendships and The Pursuit of Beauty and Truth. Perhaps one of the things that make it a difficult read for most is not just the literary allusions to phenomenology, existentialism, or class struggles, but how both intelligent characters in the beginning expressed nothing but contempt and derision against the people they encounter, be it for their vapid nature, their insipid simperings about things that seem vague and ill-configured in comparison to Renee’s and Paloma’s musings that embrace the universe. Yet it was precisely this initial mockery of their world and its little boxes of orchestrated niceties and foreordained friendships based on class that made me appreciate how much both are struggling desperately to break free from what is expected of them; they are divergent souls whose pursuit of beauty and truth is relentless to the point of pain. Here is one of Paloma’s musings on beauty:

It is this capacity to find transitory beauty in mundane gestures that also captured Reneé’s thoughtful mind:

And see Renee’s thoughts on the summer rain:

It is inevitable, of course, that the two would meet. There is also the presence of a dapper, affluent Japanese gentleman whose warm, discerning eyes saw through both characters and responded to them with grace, kindness, and genuineness. At a certain point, when Monsieur Kakuro Ozu told the young Paloma that he feels there is more to their concierge than meets the eye, Paloma reflected how much like a hedgehog Madame Reneé truly is:

Paloma’s friendship with these two adults made her reevaluate her purpose in life, as she gradually finds meaning in what she does, although she continues to wonder whether it is truly worth it:

Yes, my child, becoming a doctor or a writer is pretty much the same thing. That being said, I marvel at Reneé’s unapologetic appreciation of little things that while expendable for many, serve as pathways towards redemption for some: it could be a still-life painting of Pieter Claesz, or the Confutatis from Mozart’s Requiem, or something as simple as camellias.

Always within Never. The last few pages tore my insides. I felt that it was unnecessarily brutal of Muriel Barbery to end it in such a fashion – but then again, maybe it is fated to be the way it is. Better to live in quiet, joyful anticipation of that which has not been actualized – rather than consummate something that will never truly live up to one’s desires. Of course all that is moot now for Madame Michel, but I just couldn’t stop crying – both for the injustice and the fleeting beauty of moments that will remain forever as such. As I was recounting the entire story to my daughter over lunch, I found myself still crying over the ending, yet how terribly fitting but oh-so-heartbreaking.

I believe that more than anything, people simply want to be seen. Much as we try to render ourselves invisible, thinking that it is for the best, perhaps for self-preservation or fear of rejection; yet ultimately, we long for synchronicity borne out of truly seeing another. A kinship that blossoms out of a shared capturing of fleeting moments as they happen. This is a gem of a book. Hold it close to you.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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