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The Inelegance of Hierarchies

The Inelegance of Hierarchies

Head of a Peasant Girl, by Kazimir Malevich. 1913
Head of a Peasant Girl, by Kazimir Malevich. 1913

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, class and age play a big part. Hierarchies play a big part. Elitism and the stigma of the lower classes are dissected and become almost characters in the novel. Madame Michel, who suffers from a very poor background, feels obliged for many reasons to present to the wealthy tenants of Number 7, Rue de Grenelle, that which they already assume: her ignorance and her virtual insignificance. This is a tragedy that underlies other tragedies in the novel, and it works two ways at least. At the very least.

Madame Michel both loves and hates the fact that she must hide. There is perhaps a secret sense of joy that she has a secret life. This lifts her up to the degree that it remains hidden. But at the same time she realizes she is trapped by a stereotype, by the projection of that stereotype upon her day to day existence. She is buoyed by the trap, but still trapped.

The financial and cultural elite that inhabit the apartment building see her as they see most people of the lower classes. She feeds them this. They eat it and give it back to her. No one’s the wiser. No one really benefits from the illusion and the confirmation of those stereotypes. Paloma and Mr. Ozu, alone, perhaps, in the entire building, seek to break her out of that trap. They do this, of course, for themselves as much as for Madame Michel.

Is it easier for the very young to see through stereotypes? Is it easier for an immigrant to see through class and gender stereotypes in another culture? Paloma is 12. Mr. Ozu is Japanese. Will Paloma be as sharp in 10 years? Will she be as acute and incisive in her analysis and her ability to cut through the BS of the everyday? Did Mr. Ozu find diamonds in the rough in Japan with as much clarity and success?

Hierarchies. I often find them bizarre. I often find the contemplation of our ideas about deference especially bizarre. This novel made me think of so many things, some odd, some profound, which is in keeping with Paloma’s diary entries, which she entitled profound thoughts. Ironically, and not so ironically.

For instance: On the way home from work tonight, I imagined a nice restaurant in a big city. I imagined the people who work there — I have experience from that side of the table and bar. I thought about big shots getting special seating, jumping ahead of people who have waited far longer. And I wondered: Does the CEO (and his or her date) pay more per meal? Do they actually pay a higher price for the scampi that I might select, with my date? No. No. Not at all. We pay the same listed price from the menu. Then why would the management of that restaurant kiss the ring of the CEO and push others back in the queue?

Deference. If someone is not paying your salary, if someone doesn’t have any say over your livelihood, why go out of your way to let them go to the head of the queue, just because they’re rich?

(One could even question deference when it comes to the workplace, but at least that has the virtue of direct impact on your day to day life . . . )

My own bias, my own sense of hierachies, has never included the rich. I simply don’t care. I’m just not impressed. I really don’t think more of. A billionaire. A zillionaire. A master of the universe.

Now, if someone makes me laugh, has written a great novel, composed a brilliant piece of music, painted a beautiful composition . . . I can see myself granting a moment of deference, but just a moment. Because they have made my life sweeter, lighter, sublime. But what does the zillionaire do for me?

Nothing. Except, perhaps, corrupt the already shaky monetary system. Corrupt the already shaky system of government regulation. Corrupt the already shaky environmental picture. I owe them nothing.

Madame Michel doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t seem to be anything she contemplates. She does eventually reveal one of the major reasons why she puts on masks. She does reveal why Mr Ozu’s advances cause complex reactions. But she never really seems to sense the surreality of class, the whole machinery of deference and waiting, the insanity of giving up our place in the queue for people who have nothing to offer us, won’t offer us anything, but seem to expect special treatment all the same. Because of their wealth and To the Manor Born.

My guess is that Paloma will see this from the inside some day and rebel. She will see this from the point of view of the privileged and rebel. We need more Paloma’s, and we need more Madame Michel’s who realize they are not, are never, can never be considered inferior to others of arbitrary class distinctions.

That, of course, would be another novel. Muriel Barbery hints at this, plays with it, points to it, but doesn’t say it in so many words. I have, and I won’t go to the back of the queue because pompous zillionaires think I should. I won’t step aside to let the non-Japanese tea parties ascend.


The Elegance of Observation

The Elegance of Observation

The original French edition of Muriel Barbery's novel
The original French edition of Muriel Barbery’s novel

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a wonderful novel. Moving, thoughtful, highly observant. I didn’t want to put it down. Unusual for a literary work, it is also a page-turner. I really wanted to keep going, to follow the story, to know how things turn out for the two main characters and at least a couple of the secondary ones. I wanted to spend more time in their company.

Barbery, a professor of philosophy in France, born in Casablanca, creates a very accessible world, with a light touch, even though some of the subject matter is heavy. She sets her novel on the Left Bank in Paris, in an upper-middle-class apartment building, filled with the well-to-do, with intellectual and political heavy weights. She paints the picture by alternating two voices, one who speaks directly to us, the other via her diary.

Renée Michel is a 54-year-old concierge at that apartment building. She keeps to herself and is determined never to deviate from the traditional facade of a French concierge. But we soon learn she has a secret life. The life of the mind. Devoted to reading great works of literature, viewing great art, and listening to fine classical music, Madame Michel also displays acute powers of observation and analysis. Though she never went beyond high school, she treasures what she learns and observes in a way that seems at odds with the residents of 7, Rue de Grenelle, most of whom seem to take their education too much for granted.

The other voice is the precocious Paloma Josse, a 12-year-old girl, who tells her diary that she will commit suicide when she turns 13, because she can not find any meaning to life. Unlike Madame Michel, Paloma is born into comfort and has access to the best education France can offer. She, too, is acutely aware of her surroundings and doesn’t like what she sees for the most part. The bane of her existence is her sister, Colombe, a philosophy student who seems oblivious to her little sister’s need for silence and solitude.

The two voices are brought together, eventually, primarily as a result of a new tenant in the building, Mr Ozu. A rich, Japanese businessman of great refinement, Mr. Ozu and Paloma strike up a friendship and both decide to draw out Madame Michel. They see something in her that no one else in the building has ever seen. Both Madame Michel and Paloma also have a thing for Japanese culture, so the trio is set to mesh well almost from the start. Even his last name is seductive for Madame Michel, as one of her favorite directors is Yasujiro Ozu, a distant relation. Perhaps the only stumbling block in the way is class, a subject Barbery tackles throughout the novel from both “sides”.

There is much true kindness on display in the novel. Gifts, friendship, moments of true understanding, as Peter Handke would say. Cruelty is a part of the world of that building, and we learn it is a deeply rooted part of Renée Michel’s tragic past. Barbery does not sugar-coat the cruelty or make Hallmark cards out of the kindness. This reader found them to be organic parts of the whole.


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There are rumors that a film is in the works. While I would love to see the book made into a movie, it is also obvious that the translation from book to silver screen will not be easy. So much of the story comes from the philosophical musings of both main characters, creating visual reflections of those musings will be difficult. It is not really a novel of external dialogue and action, but of ideas and their objective correlatives. It is a novel where the inner voice, our own dialogue with ourselves, take precedence. It will be interesting to see how the director decides to present The Elegance of the Hedgehog. To see how she or he brings in all of the cultural touchstones, from Tolstoy, to Husserl, to the movies of Ozu, to Japanese tea ceremonies, to William of Ockham and back again . . . .



The Elegance of Quick Observations

The Elegance of Quick Observations

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

 I’m currently about 120 pages into to this marvelous novel, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. A most enjoyable reflection on the human condition, class, Art, sickness, death and how we all seek our own raison d’être. More on this wonderful book later this week . . .

Wanted to welcome Ann Applegarth to Spinozablue. We have one of her fine poems on display here, and hope to present more of her visions from the southwest in the future.