Posts filed under ‘Barbery Muriel’

Muriel Barbery — The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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.

September 21, 2008 at 1:51 pm 8 comments


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