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the elegance of the hedgehog

15 september 2009

Muriel Barbery's international bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminded me of Nicole Krauss's History of Love: and if you have been following my reading tastes here on lection, you know that that was not a good omen.

The central parallel between The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The History of Love is that a narrator in each is a preternaturally high-verbal, effortlessly poetic, eternally wise preadolescent girl. I'm not sure what gives with all these young girls who sit around all day writing like Virginia Woolf. I sense that there's a certain amount of projection going on. The preteen prodigy is a safe space for displaying everything we sort of wish we'd figured out at that age, or since. Sheltered from adult experience, she can exist in a pure, aestheticist verbal welter of gorgeous sentences and profound thoughts. Indeed, Paloma Josse in The Elegance of the Hedgehog titles a series of her diary entries "Profound Thoughts."

In counterpoint to Paloma, we hear the musings of Renée Michel, concierge in Paloma's building. Renée is middle-aged, working-class. She hides her extraordinary mind behind the easily-ignored mask of an ignorant domestic. To the world, she's a frumpy old TV addict with a stereotypical cat. To the reader, who enters her interior monologue (unlike Paloma, she's not figured as actually writing), Renée is a polymathic cultural maven of high and low alike, with precisely the tastes of an academic specialist in pop who has escaped the confines of the high canon. Well, like me. Again, I sense projection. By importing all my cultural predilections into the body of a working-class person more ignored even than despised, I get to read my ineffably hip middle-class self installed in an irreproachably proletarian protagonist. C'est le meilleur des deux mondes.

Renée and Paloma must meet, though it takes their paths a while to converge. When they do it's by means of a catalyst, the retired, genteel Kakuro Ozu, who sees past the hidebound conventions of this Paris immeuble that stifle most of its residents' lives.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has elements of Á la recherche du temps perdu, with Paloma as Marcel but Françoise fused with Bergotte, Elstir, and Norpois into the character of Renée. The novel is also reminiscent of Harriet the Spy: privileged girl uses her apartment building as an enormous radio to eavesdrop with scorn on its foolish adults. The reviews in my paperback edition of Hedgehog invoke Simenon, apparently as the only other French novelist who has portrayed concierges. Although in Simenon's Maigret novels, concierges' dialogue is usually limited to "Oui," "non," and "qui sait?" while Renée is likelier to explicate Anna Karenina and muse on the Japanese cinema, in between bouts of freaking out over the poor punctuation in messages from her overprivileged employers.

I was sustained through a reading of The Elegance of the Hedgehog (which, unlike so many books, I actually finished) by the momentum of its spare plot. Unlike The History of Love, which gives preposterousness a bad name, there's nothing in the events of Hedgehog that strikes me as contrived. Well, maybe the ending, which I won't spoil here. If we suspend disbelief long enough to accept the acro-verbal loquaciousness of its narrators, we have no trouble accepting that the mundane but intriguing things that happen to them could actually occur. That's a virtue in fiction, not to be despised.

Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. [L'élégance du hérisson, 2006.] Trans. Alison Anderson. New York: Europa, 2008.