Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, September 6, 2010

Muriel Barbery, _L'élégance du hérisson_


The English translation of this novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was the book club selection for August. I read the original because it was summer and I had the time to do so -- besides, since I'm an American, everything sounds witty and intelligent in French. But the enchantment didn't entirely hold with this novel, since it feels like a Catcher with two Holdens.

There are two narrators, 54-year-old Renée, concierge in a haute-bourgeois apartment building, and going-on-thirteen Paloma, the younger of two daughters of a family that lives in the building. Like Holden, Renée and Paloma are perceptive and articulate but not taken seriously by the people around them. Like Holden, they can be savagely dismissive of anyone who strikes them as pretentious, insincere, or acting in bad faith. Like Holden, they tend to categorize all people other than themselves as pretentious, insincere, or acting in bad faith.

Most of the first half of the novel is mini-essays from either Renée or Paloma on the pervasive pretentiousness, insincerity, and bad faith that surrounds them. Paloma is so oppressed by it all that she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by setting fire to her family's apartment.

Wheels begin to turn with the arrival of Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese gentilhomme of ample means, refined aesthetic sense, and pitch-perfect non-western sensibilité. Through his agency, Renée and Paloma discover each other and forge a cross-generational friendship of the sensitive, considerate and plucky, in Forster's phrase.

There is even a budding romance between Renée and M. Ozu, despite the formidable obstacle of her engrained suspicion and dislike of all wealthy people, but then fate of the tomorrow-we-could-be-hit-by-a-truck variety intervenes when Renée is hit by a truck. She dies, but Paloma has discovered a reason to live, and does not burn down her family's apartment.

Apparently L'élégance du hérisson is phenomenally popular all over the place, and I suspect that popularity may be due to the large number of people who feel that they, too, are perceptive, articulate, yet not taken sufficiently seriously, and moreover surrounded by phonies. Ever since Mark David Chapman, it's been hard to contemplate this segment of the population without a little inward shudder.

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