Sunday, March 13, 2011

CB # 10 The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Translated by Alison Anderson
Renée is the concierge at a fancy apartment building in Paris. She has the elegance of a hedgehog, for all of her better traits are hidden under all the ways that she pretends to be someone else. She loves Tolstoy, her cat is named Leo and she loves to challenge herself by reading about phenomenology and watching Japanese films. She hides these facts well. She pretends to be nothing more than a stupid woman who loves watching television and eating rudimentary food, when on the inside she’s on fire with thoughts. She loves beauty but she won’t let anyone else know it.
Paloma lives in one of the apartments in the building. She is twelve years old and decidedly precocious. She has decided to kill herself and burn down the building on her thirteenth birthday to spite her family, and so that she doesn’t end up trapped in the typical life of the bourgeois. There only seems to be one route to go when you’re wealthy and intelligent, and she doesn’t want to follow along. Obviously, these two women need to meet and find out about their similarities, but the novel doesn’t take the expected route.
I found this novel beautiful but frustrating. I loved the fact that the two main characters were thinking about the world they lived in. I loved the fact that they admired beauty, discussed philosophy and had thoughts about the kind of life they were living. They were interesting, unique individuals, but I was frustrated by the way they viewed the world. They obsessed about Beauty and Truth, but made serious efforts to disguise their love. They both hide their true selves from the world, and pretend that their hiding makes them noble, instead of scared. By being unwilling to expose their true selves and thoughts to the world, I found them both nihilistic, which I think was the complete opposite of what the novel intended. They assumed that no one ever could understand them so they gave up on trying to let people in. Paloma, I can almost understand, because she is so young, and teenagers are dramatic and frustrating even at the best of times. I have a harder time with Renée because she is an adult, and I feel that her experience of life should have given her a broader perspective on people.
I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have a full understanding of how French culture works that I had such a discomfort with the characters. I do know that there is a serious stasis for anyone who wants to be employed there, and maybe the novel is supposed to reflect this, as well as French class issues. I did love that the many subjects of my undergrad, phenomenology and great literature, were discussed, and made me feel more at home in this book.
This novel had some very thought provoking moments but my favourite one begins by saying: What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?  […] If you belong to the closed inner sanctum of the elite, you must serve in equal proportion to the glory and ease of material existence you derive from belonging to that inner sanctum.
The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite – for this turns university into a sect.


  1. Whoa. That is some seriously deep stuff for a teen novel! I'm referring mostly to the quotation you gave. You're making me want to read YA!

  2. Sadly, this is not YA. At least I don't think it is. It is a translated novel, so if we learned anything last year, something major has been lost, and that something major could have been the YA-ness. I try to make it clear in the tags if something is YA, but I'll try harder.