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 . . . .