Thursday 4 March 2010

Hmmm .... chocolate?

'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery

I have waited some months for this and the library lady told me there are another seven people in the queue, so please give it priority. I can see why this book has developed such an enthusiastic following, there is nothing to dislike about this book; the setting and atmosphere are beautifully portrayed and the characters genuine and engaging. I am left feeling as if enough has already been written about this book in so many places. The Guardian loved it, The Telegraph was less keen, almost dismissive in parts, accusing it of being over simplistic, and The New York Times has more of a tendency to pick apart the philosophy.

So we have this story, about two people, living parallel lives, each aware of the other's existence, but not really knowing them. They are identified unusually by the use of different typefaces for their respective chapters. It feels a little as if the book, and the characters of Renée and Paloma are merely vehicles for the philosophical discussions and reflections. Renée is a middle aged concierge, trapped by her own perceptions of her social role and position, an autodidact who pursues in secret her own passions for art, music and literature, particularly Tolstoy. So fearful of the scorn of others she keeps up an elaborate charade of being the subservient, ignorant person she feels society expects her to be. Paloma is at the other extreme. The daughter of a politician she feels equally trapped by the confines of a predetermined role that she will be obliged to play out, and has plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, seeing it as the only escape and unable to imagine life offering enough inducements to remain alive. Their quiet existence is disrupted by the death of one of the residents, who's apartment is then bought by a curious elderly Japanese gentleman. Mr Ozu's arrival opens new doors for them all in unexpected ways.

They are linked by a shared passion for language, it's use and peculiarities, an interest that borders on the obsessive neurotic at times. (Sorry, going to slip now into the first of a few lengthy quotes) Here Renée has received a note from one of the residents:

"I was not prepared for such an underhand attack. I collapse in shock on the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad. does this have the same effect on you, when this sort of thing happens?
Let me explain:
The cat is sleeping.
You've just read a harmless little sentence, and it has not caused you any pain or sudden fits of suffering, has it? Fair enough.
Now read agin:
The cat, is sleeping.
Let me repeat it, so that there is no cause for ambiguity:
The cat comma is sleeping.
The cat, is sleeping.
Would you be so kind as, to sign for.
On the one hand we have an example of a prodigious use of the comma that takes great liberties with language, as said commas have been inserted quite unnecessarily, but to great effect:
'I have been much blamed, both for war, and for peace ...'
And on the other hand, we have this dribbling scribbling on vellum, courtesy of Sabine Pallieres, this comma slicing the sentence in half with all the trenchancy of a knife blade." (p.105)

This is precisely what is so appealing about her character, you are allowed, even encouraged, to indulge in frequent bouts of intellectual snobbery, as you share with her the horror she experiences at the ignorance and lack of refinement of her supposedly well educated upper class residents.

Reading that the author is a philosophy professor and lives in Japan you can see that on one level this novel is pure self indulgence. She writes about, in these character's lives, all the things that interest her. There are lots of literary and film references, and Paloma and Renée's preexisting shared interest in japanese culture (manga and films respectively) ensures that Mr Ozu's arrival is guaranteed to intrigue them both. Taking into account the fact that I am reading a translation from the french Ms Barbery has a wonderful vocabulary, and knows how to use it. But it's not just the fancy words, it's the way she expresses things so beautifully. Some random (carefully chosen) examples:

"twenty years wasted stalking dust" (talking of her friend Manuela, the cleaner)
"From time to time I rewind, thanks to this secular rosary known as the remote control." (p.95)
"Goodbye, says Paloma, with her first, faint smile, a poor little out-of-pactice smile that breaks your heart." (p.241)
"Come in, I say without thinking, in the heat of the conversation.
Solange Josse looks in round the door.
All three of us look at her questioningly, as if we were guests at a banquet being disturbed by an ill-mannered servant." (p.262)

and the best one (a bit longer):

"To the chapter of my turpitudes I must now add the abduction of a dress that does not belong to me, in place of one stolen from a dead woman, by me. The evil is rooted, moreover, in the infinitesimal nature of my hesitation. If my vacillation had been the fruit of a sense of compunction linked to the concept of ownership, I might yet be able to implore St Peter's forgiveness; but i fear it is due to nothing more that the time needed to ensure the feasibility of my misdeed." (p.265, on deliberately acquiring the 'wrong' dress from the dry cleaners.)

On another tack altogether I got the feeling sometimes that I was reading Virginia Woolf. Firstly there is the whole slightly stream of consciousness thing, and most of the story is being written from the perspective of the inside of the character's heads. In several places Renée describes her own thought processes when she decides how to respond in conversation, when she is trying to conceal her true reaction to whatever has been said or asked of her. With Paloma it is less so, her chapters are more self obsessed, concerned with her own little world and how it conspires to make life horrible, quite a clichéd teenage neurosis really. But Renée frequently muses on more esoteric abstract emotions (here reflecting about a painting that she sees at Mr Ozu's apartment) :

"The seal of eternity ... What absent world does our heart intuit when we see these dishes and cups, these carpets and glasses? Beyond the frame of the painting there is, no doubt, the tumult and boredom of everyday life - itself an unceasing and futile pursuit, consumed by plans; but within the frame lies the plenitude of a suspended moment, stolen from time, rescued from human longing. Human longing! We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory, and our doom. Desire! It carries us and crucifies us, delivers us every new day to a battlefield where, on the eve, the battle was lost; but in sunlight does it not look like a territory ripe for conquest, a place where - even though tomorrow we will die - we can build empires doomed to fade to dust, as if the knowledge we have of their imminent fall had absolutely no effect on our eagerness to build them now." (and so on for another page) (p.199)

Anyway, circumstances conspire to throw them together and a friendship grows up between them, and Mr Ozu has a profound, positive and enduring effect on both their lives. Just when I was beginning to think that the story itself was a little lame and predictable the finale completely threw me. The story is about both main characters trying to make some meaning in their lives, and although verging on the sentimental at the end I think it offers an uplifting reflection on the importance of friendship and a seeking for beauty.

So why the chocolate of the post title? This bit made me laugh out loud, so i have to quote it to you, even though it is kind of a private family joke. Dunk will probably use the comments to deny all knowledge, but this is exactly what he does to make me think he is listening (Paloma describing her mother's visits to her analyst):

"Personally I don't think she is taking the anti-depressants to ease her anxiety but rather to endure the analysis. When she describes her sessions, it's enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall. The guy says 'hmmm' at regular intervals, and repeats the end of her sentences ('And I went to Lenotre's with my mother': 'Hmmm, your mother?' 'I do so like chocolate': 'Hmmm, chocolate?')" (p.162)

I do try and resist hype usually, but this one was worth the wait. Do read it.


  1. Sounds excellent - thank you for sharing this thoughtful review. i haven't read it yet but it has been on my radar for a while and the quotes that you have given sound wonderfully descriptive and thought provoking.


  2. Martine, I also loved this book, I also generally avoid over hyped books because of the disappointment they so often lead to but this one did not disapoint, and a great review I hope many other readers are inspired to discover this lovely book.


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