Muriel Barbery — The Elegance of the Hedgehog

September 21, 2008 at 1:51 pm 8 comments

Elle describes The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008) as “a user’s guide to life”. Don’t listen. Like many overtly “philosophical” novels, it’s a fluffy confection of style over substance.

Barbery interleaves the narratives of a janitor, Renée, and a self-consciously “suicidal” 13-year-old girl, Paloma: two residents in the same Parisian apartment block. Their short chapters are rather like blog entries: the pair tell us the books they’ve been reading, the philosophical thoughts they’ve been thinking. Renée loves Anna Karenina and Japanese cinema. Paloma loves absurdism and a game called Go. Her interests include having profound thoughts and searching for perfectly beautiful motion. Must have GSOH.

The book is a pretty piece of writing. Little distinguishes the prose of the narrators (I occasionally had to rely on the font to remind me which I was reading), but Barbery, elegantly translated here by Alison Anderson, has a light, wry touch that recalls Margaret Atwood’s Iris in The Blind Assassin (2000):

I like Olympe Saint-Nice. I think that one must have considerable strength of character to survive such a ridiculous first name, especially when one knows it must have destined the unfortunate girl to peals of laughter and “Hey, Olympe, can I climb on your mount?” all through what must have seemed an interminable adolescence.

All the same, I didn’t much like The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Like The Blind Assassin, the book is flabby and meandering, but, unlike Atwood’s opus, the book has little plot substance to reward your time investment.

Renée and Paloma feel like thinly veiled alteregos for Prof. Muriel Barbery. Their intellectual ramblings soon grate. Nothing much happens to either of them until a death in the apartment block kicks off the novel’s events about halfway through, and the pair’s conflicting philosophical positions are thrown into relief. They become friends, and through each other learn that maybe other people aren’t so hellish after all.

We’re meant to see Renée as a woman tragically repressed by a society that values bourgeois status over literary knowledge. But she is aloof, introverted and scathing of the people around her. A society that only valued literary knowledge, and put insufferable inverted-snobs like Renée on a pedestal, would be no improvement at all.

Perhaps my lukewarm attitude towards pop philosophy is to blame. Barbery is a bona fide philosopher at the École Normale. I’m sure she’s very good. Tragically, I can only picture her as Delphine Roux, the self-absorbed “Normalienne” in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000). From the evidence of Hedgehog, Barbery shares the pomposity and prententiousness of her stereotype. So much of this book is just namedropping: the narrators spend so much time reeling off the names of authors they’ve read lately. There is a kind of underlying supposition that one’s reading list is a measure of one’s true worth. I disagree.

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Entry filed under: Barbery Muriel, Book Reviews. Tags: , , , , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stewart  |  October 15, 2008 at 10:50 am

    I’m getting mixed reaction to this book, which is interesting. Some seem to think it good, while others have trotted out the pretentious waffle tag, which is down to the navel-gazing qualities of some French novels.

    What surprises most about this is that it’s a book from Gallic Books, especially since its managing director, Jane Aitken, said that she didn’t feel introspective novels would do well in the UK.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  October 16, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Good idea, I forgot to tag it under “pretentious waffle”. :)

    That’s not quite fair. Barbery is a scholar of Kant and Husserl and doesn’t just talk rubbish. But it is pretentious, to the extent that the intellectual snobbery of the characters makes them thoroughly odious. Renée’s attitude to her cohabitants is something like “You’re richer than me, but I read more, so I’m better than you.” And we’re meant to warm to her.

    I assume they published it because it’s sold around a million copies in French. It does at least have a plot. It’s pop philosophy with the common touch — as I said, at times it reminded me of Margaret Atwood.

  • 3. meekins  |  February 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

    *SPOILER*

    Hmm yes….she did seem to waffle a lot…I found it hard to follow and concentrate during those long tangents! However some of them were beautiful.

    The book as a whole though, I found delightful, I truely enjoyed it.

    Did you find the ending a little contradictory though? Not that I’m the type who needs fluffy happy endings…it’s just the whole thing of “you are not your sister” came true. But maybe that was the point…

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  March 7, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Thanks meekins.

    Spoiler:

    Maybe “contradictory” is the word. Barbery sets the reader up to think that her story is going to have a cute “follow your dreams” message, then defies any easy interpretation by killing off her main character arbitrarily.

    On the other hand, “memento mori” plot twists appear in many novels. It’s an old trick.

  • 5. c. chapman  |  March 22, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    I read the book yesterday; it was as they say a page-turner, but I too have a complaint. Much of what follows the concierge’s first dinner with M. Ozu seems to be chick-lit disguised by the quality of the writing.
    Oh, those cosy little chats with the girls in the loge! My word, aren’t there unexpected twists and turns in getting a new frock!
    Golly, sometimes I’m embarrassingly awkward (in a giggle-making way)! Goodness, M. Ozu has sent me an entire new outfit! (This last example is so crassly out of character for him–as is Renee’s acceptance–as to jolt the reader out of the complicity of belief in the narration.
    Great web-site.

  • 6. Jonathan Birch  |  April 15, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Thanks c.

    Yes, I suppose Hedgehog is not exactly my cup of tea, but it’s not hard to see why Elle fell in love with it.

  • 7. The Hieroglyphic Streets  |  May 17, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    […] story of friendship.  Smithereens wanted to throw it across the room.   Jonathan Birch calls it a fluffy confection of style over substance.  Grierson Huffman recommends it with reservations.  Dan Sumption calls it beautiful if flawed, […]

  • 8. Jet  |  November 28, 2009 at 1:05 am

    I’m halfway through the French edition of this book and I’m ready to give up. I know there are more boring books out there but this is almost as bad as it gets!

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