Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Ordinarily, I'm a fast reader. I remember surprising my own father when I was about 15 or 16 by how fast I read a copy of a play script he'd brought home (it was Hedda Gabler). "You didn't really read that," he accused. "Yes, I did," I asserted. After fifteen minutes of questioning me about the plot, he had to admit that I was telling him the truth. And I've gotten faster since then, with lots of practice.

So reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog in Alison Anderson's English translation was a rare pleasure for me--I read it slowly. I deliberately read short passages and did other things in between, because it's not a long book, and I wanted it to last. When I finished it, I had to blink the tears out of my eyes for a minute.

And then I did something that I don't usually do before writing my own review; I looked to see what a few other people had said about this novel, because the similarity between one of the two main characters--a 12-year-old girl--and Holden Caulfield (from Catcher in the Rye) was so striking to me that I knew it must have struck someone else. And yes, Michael Dirda, at the now-defunct Washington Post Book Review mentions it in his September 2008 review. The girl, who narrates a good many sections of this novel before you find out that her name is Paloma, says of herself that she is "hypersensitive to anything that is dissonant, as if I had some sort of absolute pitch for false notes or contradictions." Sure sounds like Holden's "phoniness" to me!

But there's not much else that's derivative about this novel. The way it is told, beginning with the viewpoint of Renee Michel,the apartment building concierge (a "typical French concierge," she asserts) and switching occasionally to the point of view of one of the building's residents, Paloma, sets up some low-level suspense and provides just a hint of perspective on Renee, one of the the most dignified but least self-aware narrators in modern fiction, right up there with Ishiguro's butler in The Remains of the Day. Renee goes to extraordinary lengths to disguise her intelligence and taste. Paloma is her mirror image in this. When they are brought together by their friendship with a Japanese gentleman who has moved into the building, they begin to reveal more of themselves.

Most of the intellectual underpinnings of the novel are mentioned, rather than explored; they are presented as elements of character by the philosophy professor author. The books that Renee likes to read shows what kind of person she is more than her unprepossessing figure or her ugly face ever can. There are intellectual references aplenty for the educated and self-congratulatory reader, most amusingly (for me, at least) in the names of the characters' cats. One reference that I didn't get is revealed in the NYT review of Caryn James:

The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. Yet there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all. (What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”

Another insider's joke--one that anyone who has ever worked toward a PhD can enjoy about this novel--is Renee's description of the process, which includes her fascination "by the abnegation with which we human beings are capable of devoting a great deal of energy to the quest for nothing and to the rehashing of useless and absurd ideas."

Renee's concern with the elegance of grammar (surely a reflection of modern French rhetorical education, even though Renee prides herself on being an autodidact) is refreshing at first, although the charm of it wore thin for me long before the end. And Paloma's enthusiasm for all things Japanese, shared by Renee and celebrated in the person of the Japanese gentlemen, struck me as somewhat adolescent, despite delicate treatment of the theme of the ephemeral nature of beauty throughout this novel.

But those are minor cavils, as the writing itself is beautiful throughout, even in translation, and Renee's determined efforts to create her own "controlling vision" were interesting to me, as is what she calls her "combination of ability and blindness"--the way her thoughts dart effortlessly from Husserl, Kant, and Descartes to Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October, the quality of the light in Blade Runner, or the behavior of the dogs who live in her building.

Particularly moving is the section in which Renee describes the months leading up to the death of her husband. Employed to take care of trivia for others, she perceives that his illness is a trivial detail to those she serves: "to rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people--perhaps because their lives are more rarified...experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life...."

The section about her husband's illness and death made me think about all the people I meet in the course of a week in a small town, and how the disappearance of one usually does leave only a small indentation, not because I view everyone else in the world as there for my use, but because I'm so narrowly focused on what I have to do and the few people I've chosen to do it with. Renee is as guilty of seeing her tenants as users as they are of seeing her only as someone put there to help them.

However, the events of the novel change the two main character's tendency to stereotype others, as Paloma observes on first noticing Renee: "From a distance, she's a real concierge. Close up...well, close up...there's something weird going on." Later, when Renee is dressed up and some tenants don't recognize her, the Japanese gentlemen reassures her, saying "it is because they have never seen you....I would recognize you anywhere." Ultimately, this novel is about seeing more of who is around you, and getting more involved in their lives.

In the wake of a discussion I had with friends last night about why Henry Louis Gates' neighbors would call the police, rather than go over to see why he was breaking into his own house, this seems like a timely theme. And I found it to be a novel well worth reading slowly.

If you're interested in other views of this novel, there's a review and a list of some other blog reviews at Caribous Mom. Also The Reading Life relates the novel to "how a life of reading can shape a person."


Amanda said...

I almost picked up this book recently but couldn't justify the expense on top of my other books. Looks like I should have gotten it...

mel said...

Thanks for the very interesting review of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". I really love the book.

Most of the negative comments you will find on it center around the treatment of Japanese cultural as a stereo type. I think this is to miss part of the point of the book. It is about a lot of things and one of them is how stereo types limit us and trap us. I have tried to talk about this on my blog.

Wendy said...

Excellent review of this complex novel...thanks for stopping by my blog (and linking to my review as well)...glad you enjoyed this so much. You elaborated on a lot of the things that make this book a special read.

Karen said...

I love the comparison to Ishiguro's butler; that alone almost makes me plan on reading this novel. I'll put it on my library list.

In fairness, though, if Paloma is 12 years old, isn't she _entitled_ to some adolescent fixations and fascinations?

Book Bird Dog said...

I think the use of Mr. Ozu, the Japanest gentleman, is as a foil to the French culture around him - his simplicity versus their self involvement ( Paloma's mother and her endless therapy sessions, Renee's sister, etc.) I don't see Ozu as a stereotype or a glorification of the Japanese culture. I saw the book mainly as social satire, aimed mostly at the French.

Anonymous said...

I missed this this summer! It's a good review -- I liked the book, too.

Jeanne said...

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, especially the “examples in this post” portion which made it really easy for me to SEE what you were talking about without even having to leave the article. Thanks