The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Audio version: HighBridge Company, Unabridged (2009)
Readers: Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris
Finished on 4/28/11
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.
We are in an elegant hotel particulier in the center of Paris. Renée, the building’s concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighborhood. But Renée has a secret: she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants—her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.
Then there’s Paloma, a super-smart twelve-year-old and the youngest daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Talented, precocious, and startling lucid, she has come to terms with life’s seeming futility and has decided to end her own on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest quality from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu. He befriends Paloma and is able to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the mysterious event that has haunted her since childhood. This is a moving, witty, and redemptive novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
One of the things I love most about my job as a book seller is chatting about my favorite books with customers and co-workers. Occasionally, I meet someone who shares my taste in books and offers their recommendations to me. Such was the case with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The customer was so enthusiastic about the novel that I promptly bought a copy.
That was three years ago.
Even after the book was nominated for our local One Book, One Lincoln read, I wasn’t inspired to pick it up. It wasn’t until I came upon the audio edition that I decided it was time to give it a try. I’m so glad I did, as it turned out to be an excellent novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the alternating voices, performed so well by Barbara Rosenblat (Renée) and Cassandra Morris (Paloma). And, it’s probably a good thing I decided to listen rather than read. There are a few philosophical passages that became a bit tedious, even while listening, and I can guarantee you that I would’ve have wound up heaving the book at a wall if I’d been reading it. Apparently, Publishers Weekly noted this, as well:
This audio version of the surprise French bestseller hits the mark as both performance and story. The leisurely pace of the novel, which explores the upstairs-downstairs goings-on of a posh Parisian apartment building, lends itself well to audio, and those who might have been tempted to skip through the novel's more laborious philosophical passages (the author is a professor of philosophy) will savor these ruminations when read aloud. Tony Award–winning actress Barbara Rosenblat positively embodies the concierge, Renée Michel, who deliberately hides her radiant intelligence from the upper-crust residents of 7 rue de Grenelle, and the performance of Cassandra Morris as the precocious girl who recognizes Renée as a kindred spirit is nothing short of a revelation. Morris's voice, inflection and timbre all conspire to make the performance entirely believable.
With that said, I still plan to re-read the printed version someday. This is a charming novel that made me both laugh and cry. I wonder if the film will have the same effect. So much of the narrative is focused on the internal thoughts of Renée and Paloma and I wonder how (or if) the producer is able to capture their quirky personalities.
Paloma on grammar:
“What’s the point of grammar?” asked Achille Grand-Fernet. “You ought to know by now,” replied Madame Never-mind-that-I-am-paid-to-teach-you. “Well I don’t,” replied Achille, sincerely for once, “no one ever bothered to explain it to us.” Madame Fine let out a long sigh, of the “do I really have to put up with such stupid questions” variety, and said, “The point is to make us speak and write well.”
I thought I would have a heart attack there and then. I have never heard anything so grossly inept. And by that, I don’t mean it’s wrong, just that it is grossly inept. To tell a group of adolescents who already know how to speak and write that that is the purpose of grammar is like telling someone that they need to read a history of toilets through the ages in order to pee and poop. It is utterly devoid of meaning! If she had shown us some concrete examples of things we need to know about language in order to use it properly, well, okay, why not, that would be a start. She could tell us, for example, that knowing how to conjugate a verb in all its tenses helps you avoid making the kind of major mistakes that would put you to shame at a dinner party (“I would of came to the party earlier but I tooked the wrong road”). Or, for example, that to write a proper invitation in English to a little divertissement at the chateau of Versailles, knowing the rules governing spelling and the use of apostrophes in la langue de Shakespeare can come in very useful: it would save you from embarrassment such as: “Deer friend, may we have the pleasure of you’re company at Versaille’s this evening? The Marquise de Grand-Fernet.” But if Madame Fine thinks that’s all grammar is for… We already know how to use and conjugate a verb long before we knew it was a verb. And even if knowing can help, I still don’t think it’s something decisive.
Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that’s where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself, “Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious, rich and subtle!” I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you’ve grasped this, you’ve grasped the core of any statement. It’s magnificent, don’t you think? Nouns, verbs…
Renée on reading:
I have read so many books…
And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my readings—and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure.
As much as I enjoyed the audio version of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’m very anxious to actually read Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. A friend loaned me his copy… three years ago!
If I haven’t convinced you to read this book, perhaps NPR’s praise will help:
Despite the topic of suicide and many philosophical ponderings, the Renée and Paloma’s narrations are delightfully colorful, idealistic and witty. They are written as if the two are communicating with us in personal journals, speaking with confessional intimacy. The author uses these lovable characters to express enduring messages about assumptions we make that distort relationships… These are the very things you will find in this engaging story that ends surprisingly but with a final message of what life is about. It includes the music of Satie, despair and beauty, and an ‘always’ within ‘never.’ (NPR’s Day to Day)
Go here to view a trailer for the film and here to read more about the cast.
Go here to read Wendy's excellent review for the novel over at Caribousmom.