After being a very lucky girl this Christmas and receiving countless book tokens to spend wherever I please, I decided to pick up a brand new copy The Elegance of the Hedgehog in my new spiced-up local Waterstones. Mainly pulled in by the atmospheric picture of the Paris skyline and the quirky title, I felt confident that this book was for me – in hindsight I really had no idea of the philosophy lesson I was letting myself in for, albeit a very pleasant one.
The ‘hedgehog’ of this tale is Renée Michel; the aging concierge of 7 Rue Grenelle, an address in one of the most exclusive, ‘bourgeois’ areas of Paris and home to Paloma Josse; a deeply intellectual and profound young girl, so dismayed by her existence among the shallow trappings of her class that she is seriously contemplating ‘escaping’ from her life indefinitely.
Renée is a highly intelligent, passionate autodidact with a huge internal life. A bright, vibrant intellect who hibernates away (à la hérisson) in order to conform with the stereotypical image of the French concierge; dull, uninteresting and hooked on daytime television. She is utterly terrified of being ‘found out’ (a huge element of her personality that I really struggled to comprehend at the beginning of the book), a problem that is thrust out into the fore once she begins to develop exciting new relationships with those around her.
Only at the halfway point, after meeting some lovely Frenchies on the bus home from work, did I discover that Muriel Barbery and her novel are both French, and (thankyou Wikipedia) that she herself is a professor of philosophy. Finally everything falls into place! This book is so very thick with philosophical musings and introspection yet, you would think quite miraculously, still manages to tell a deceptively simple tale about a woman constrained by the social boundaries that she has quite unwittingly exacerbated for herself. From what I know from my university studies and living over there, this masterful mélange is typically French but, for that very reason, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, however lovely the story might be. Despite the excellent translation by Alison Anderson, had I known I most certainly would have read this in the original language.
I always found our own concierge (and they always seemed, quite strangely, to be Portuguese!) to be completely fascinating; keeping our narrow little apartment building running like clockwork and the mirror in the hallway shining like new and yet still remaining squirreled away in her ground floor flat. I think I saw her once in a whole year of living over there – The question is will this story really interest those without such a specific frame of reference? Well yes, I think it will.
For those of you who can embrace the philosophy for dummies, Barbery’s quirky, anti-bourgeois characters cannot fail to pull at your heartstrings. As I learnt with Lively’s Moon Tiger, this compassion is an essential aspect of enjoying any book, as is the uncanny ability of a good book to advertise other literary classics within its pages. In the same way that I have been persuaded to read Dickens’ David Copperfield from recently reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, dear Renée has boosted my confidence to perhaps finally tackle some of the Russian monoliths such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace. (I have also been inspired to name my first cat, like Renée, after a favourite literary character…I’m thinking ‘Bilbo’ could be quite cute…)