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Culture Watch

Page Three of Reviews


By Muriel Barbery

Published by Europa Editions; 2006 paperback, 325 pp.

Unique is an overused term that nevertheless applies to this book. Reviewers have referred to it as a novel, which in this case is misleading. It is a story with two protagonists, but told in a series of extraordinary essays. It resembles the epistolary novel except that the characters seem to be addressing themselves, and, to an extent, their readers. One reviewer calls it a fable, but it fails to have the impersonality, animal characters and distanced viewpoint characteristic of that form. It is so unlike anything else that it is, as one of its characters might put it, sui generis.

The Elegance of Hedgehogs begins with Marx, discusses Tolstoy, Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, modern cinema (with an emphasis on Japanese art films), sociology, fashion, discrimination and empathy, politics both global and local, pets and sports, music and cuisine, grammar and manners, friends and hope, hopelessness and astonishment. The book ends with a daunting abruptness as if Barbery simply couldn't figure out how to go on.

One character is Renée Michel, a concierge in an apartment building in an exclusive Parisian neighborhood. The other is a precocious twelve-year-old girl. Paloma (should symbolism be read into the names? Paloma's contrasting sister is called Colombe) lives with her father, mother, and sister and their pet cat. The other characters who move in and out of the purview of the concierge's loge are examples of the worst of privileged society, but not all of them all of the time, and not without an occasional glimpse of humanity. Certainly society's obliviousness to the poor is a kind of figured bass to the fugue of the composition.

Mme. Michel and Paloma Josse regard the world through similar prisms of uncommon intelligence and erudition. If there is a flaw in such a masterful and engaging presentation with so little physical drama, it is there: a farm-reared peasant married at seventeen and widowed before middle age who keeps her sanity with classical music, Dutch painting, Russian novelists seems improbable; a twelve-year-old living with the most bourgeois and conventional parents imaginable seems unlikely to be on speaking terms with a Master's thesis on the writings of a medieval English monk. You have to try to imagine how this child of such blinkered privilege could have come by her notions of what society ought to be.

Some of the wonderfully cryptic titles of chapter sections are reminiscent of forgotten classrooms, and that is a second problem that must be either accepted or overlooked. The most obvious adjective to describe this book might be "challenging." After consulting the dictionary often, rereading sentences that make you wonder if the translator was quite right, or if the proofreader missed something, you're dragged along anyway. This book is so dense that it is good for several days' reading. You have no desire to finish it at a sitting (even if you have the strength to try it), but boring it is not.

The diction is extraordinary in its formality, and owing to a good many swipes at today's accepted careless grammar and inattention to precision, you sometimes aren't sure what's a joke. If you're sufficiently fussy or old fashioned, you'll see the joke all right, but your chuckle will be grim. Comments on class and current decline in morality are similarly double-edged.

The first person point of view is the essential foundation for both characters' stories. Because Barbery must be one of the world's most erudite individuals, she has to endow her characters with more than a normal complement not just of analytical ability, but also with incredible educations if they are to speak for her. Mme. Michel may be an autodidact, and can probably get away with it because of her age, but there's a problem with a child who is only twelve.

Keep an eye peeled for the quotation that is the title. It's helpful to keep it in mind as you make your journey through the story.

The catalyst appears at last in the person of a gentlemanly, perceptive new tenant who happens to be Japanese and who happens to have huge wealth. How M. Ozu precipitates earth-shaking changes for both the concierge and the little girl becomes the burden of what suddenly turns out to be a novel after all. That's the point at which you won't want to put the book down.

As you approach the final pages, you realize that you have been subjected to a deluge of sentiment without sentimentality, with an aesthetic without preciosity, social conscience to give you pause for many a moon, and with intellectual challenges to last you for longer than you may like. The end may knock your proverbial socks off whether you like it or not.

This is nothing less than a superb performance, a wonderful read, but not without its challenges.

Joan L. Cannon


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©2009 Joan L. Cannon for



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