The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery (2006)
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Gallic Books, 2008
The Elegance of the Hedgehog only really starts in Chapter Two of Summer Rain: The Great Work of Making Meaning. All that I read up until that point, excluding some mild philosophical insights, was a litany of self aggrandising and cerebral insecurities.
Finally, there is a lovely point on page 174 where Renée’s past is slowly and sensitively revealed in an anecdote of a little glass globe which held all of her possible hopes and dreams. All of which had been locked away for too long.
Unfortunately for the book and my impressions of Renée, the indefatigable stereotype of the disgruntled and uneducated concierge persists rather too long. Admittedly the book seems to be set in a different time, so some of the of the cultural and class bigotries were still pertinent, and certainly are still applicable today. However, I found it so incredibly difficult to reconcile Renée’s new found confidence with the down trodden perspective which seems to have blighted her whole life:
“I am not accustomed to such a relationship with the world; it seems to me that he views it with indulgence and curiosity, whereas the other human beings I know display with wariness and kindness (Manuela), ingenuity and kindness (Olympe) or arrogance and cruelty (everyone else).” p.225
I was really put off by this almost fetishisation of orientalism and who calls people human beings? Of course the latter could simply be an error of translation; this book was so popular that I was even ignorant as to it being written originally in French. For the former, however, there seems to be no justification. The lack of self-awareness paired with an inept smugness and superiority towards others in the world was really unfortunate and certainly broke any feelings of sympathy for the characters:
“What would I do if I were Colombe Josse, a young student at the École Normale with all my future before me? I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity, to resolving issues that are crucial for the survival, well-being and elevation of mankind, to the fate of Beauty in the world, or to the just crusade for philosophical authenticity.” p.248
Admittedly at this point I was convinced that the book was a scathing criticism on the failures of naivety, or at least an ironic account of a misguided save the world impetus common to many failed literary heros. The only reason I moved away from such a view was that things started slowly to get better. To get richer, to get fuller and to get much more interesting.
I think that instead of following the method of simplicity which builds into dimension in the development of her characters, Barbery decided on the something like the opposite. The characters are immediately so self-assured with their own superiority that they only grow into three dimensional individuals by virtue of their relationships with other people. Even though their personal foundations are vapid and ultimately vain, once they come together, the softer more human aspects of their personalities are free to emerge.
It is only at the point when Paloma and Renée start to recognise one another on an existential level that some truly redemptive moments are given the room to evolve: “You have found a good hiding place.” (p.241) These sweet uncalculated moments are a significant commentary on the fallibility and ignorance of intelligence. Which is what I believe Barbery was ultimately aiming for. Finally, although there is no comparison with another well known work of philosophical fiction; Sophie’s World, there are some absolutely heartrending moments in the book, which do much to make up for the beginning.