by Muriel Barbery, 2006 (translated by Alison Anderson, 2008)
We house-sat for friends all summer. As well as taking care of Vinnie the dog, we looked after the English language book exchange in our friends’ front room. Life in Sanlúcar would be a lot less rich if this wonderful book exchange did not exist. Looking after the book exchange for the summer meant that, not only did I get first dibs on all deposited books, I also got to meet lots of new and interesting people who had sailed up the river. A Canadian woman, Sheila, came one day and asked if I was Martina. She had a book for me. For once, this book was not for the book exchange, but specifically for me. My friend Jak had given the book to Sheila and requested that she give it to me when she was next ashore on the Sanlúcar side of the river. But Sheila arrived with a sheepish apology. A short while earlier, as Sheila went grocery shopping, her husband had started to read the book and now didn’t want to part with it. I found him outside the house, sitting on a wall, engrossed in the book, and I couldn’t bear to deprive him of it. He promised he would give it to me as soon as he finished.
A couple of weeks later my friend Eglė told me the book was now at her house. Sheila had read it after Michael had finished and then handed it over to Eglė to give to me. But now there was a further delay. Eglė was reading it and her husband wanted it when she was finished. By the time The Elegance of the Hedgehog finally landed in my eager hands, my expectations were very high indeed.
High expectations aren’t always a good thing. I remember I was one of the last people in Ireland to see The Commitments. The film had broken box office records all over the place, had won prestigious awards and everyone was raving about it. I was sorely disappointed. It simply didn’t live up to the hype I had been feeding on for months. The Elegance of the Hedgehog didn’t disappoint quite as much as The Commitments, but I do wonder if I would have enjoyed it more had I been given it that summer day with only Jak, and not a whole stream of other readers, to recommend it to me.
The stories of Renée, an autodidact concierge desperately trying to hide her intelligence under a bushel, and Paloma, a precocious 13-year old who lives in one of the apartments in the building where Renée works, are recounted by the protagonists in bite-sized chapters. The action takes place almost entirely inside the apartment building and, for much of the book one wonders if their two paths will ever cross. Both are observers of the snobbery and faux intellectualism of bourgeois Parisian society and their dry observations are informed by the philosophy, cultural criticism and psychology they both read in secret.
While I liked both characters, I never quite understood their need for such secrecy about their intellects. And when a new resident comes to live in the building and the lives of Renée and Paloma start to change for the better, I was truly happy for them both.
I wasn’t disappointed by the story itself, nor by the author’s manner of telling it. What started to get under my skin after a while was the author’s cultural reference name dropping. It’s almost as if she’s trying too hard to make the reader feel good. A Bashō haiku here, a whole unnecessary chapter on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology there, another chapter written in such a way that, for the cine-literate*, the punchline, The hunt for Red October, is obvious from the chapter’s opening line. The more I thought ‘oh I know that’ or ‘I get that reference’, the more I felt pleased with myself, and the more I felt like the faux intellectuals that Paloma and Renée deride. Maybe that was the point. Maybe by feeling all puffed up on getting all those cultural references I was supposed to ultimately recognise the pointlessness of such knowledge. Or maybe I am over-intellectualising things!
Though I cried through the final scene, I closed the book with dissatisfaction. The final, heart-wrenching chapter left me unsatisfied in the same way that Shrek left me unsatisfied the first time I saw it (I’m nothing if not catholic in my tastes!). Know your place, stick with your own, don’t transgress boundaries. However, The elegance of the hedgehog has reminded me that I haven’t watched The hunt for Red October in far too long.
*Or, as my father used to say, about both me and him, ‘a wasted youth’. That’s a blog post for another day.