Muriel Barbery's second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is a great treat. Two extremely engaging narrators spin a picture of life at 7, Rue Grenelle, in Paris's Faubourg St Germain. The elder is the concierge, Renée Michel, a child of the the banlieue who has made a second career of hiding her light under a bushel. Self-taught but quite well read, Mme Michel presents her well-heeled tenants with a blunt persona that is designed not to arouse their curiosity. She has her reasons for not wanting them in her life, even aside from the fact that she doesn't think much of any of them.
I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college. I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species. Because I am rarely friendly — though always polite — I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless; I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.
The other voice belongs to Paloma Josse, the twelve-year-old daughter of a successful politician — or, to use Paloma's nicer-sounding term, un parlementaire. Like Mme Michel, Paloma strives to appear more ordinary than she is.
And since I don't really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family — an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment's peace — I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior in college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.
Paloma presently tells us that she has special plans for her thirteenth birthday: she's going to kill herself and set fire to the apartment building. Because of her gleaming but bitter intelligence, this unsettling announcement can't be gainsaid, but it has the effect of transforming Paloma (whom we hardly know) into a kind of closet Eloise. Much of the novel's fun comes from her mordantly "realistic" worldview. Paloma savages her parents, her sister, and nearly everyone else she encounters, and is very entertaining about it.
Almost conspicuously, neither speaker mentions the other until well into the book, thus confirming our compensating sense that they are soul-mates bound to team up sooner or later — as, just in time, they do. Paloma pays her first visit to the loge to apologize for her sister's rudeness. Not that "apology" is the mot juste for Paloma's bristly statement. "I am here," she says to Mme Michel, "because she's a coward and a chicken." The moment is one of classic satisfaction: the meeting, if not the mating, of two bristling hedgehogs. But it is not spontaneous. Our ladies have been set up by a mystery man. Which is all right, given the kind of book that this novel is.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog dusts off a prototypically French genre, the philosophical novel. Here is Paloma's mother at a lingerie shop, contesting possession of the last pair of lace panties on the rack:
And now the stage is set for an interesting movement: a pair of panties at one hundred and thirty euros does not amount to much more than a few centimeters of ultra fine lace. So you have to smile at the other woman, hold firm to the panties, and pull them toward you without tearing them. I'll tell you straight out: if in our world the laws of physics are constant, this will not be possible. After a few seconds of unsuccessful endeavor, the two ladies say amen to Newton but don't give up. The war will have to be fought using other means — diplomacy (one of Papa's favorite words). And this results in the following interesting movement: pretend to be unaware of pulling firmly on the panties, while asking for them with faux courtesy. So here are Maman and the other lady and all of a sudden it's as though they have each lost their right hand, which is in fact clinging to the panties. It's as if the panties did not exist, as if Maman and the lady were chatting quite calmly about a pair of panties that were still on the rack, that neither one would ever dream of trying to expropriate by force. Where has my right hand gone? Poof! Vanished! Disappeared! Time for diplomacy!
As everyone knows, diplomacy always fails when there is no imbalance of power. No one's ever seen the stronger party accept the other party's diplomatic proposal. As a result, the negotiations which began in unanimity with "Oh, I think I was quicker than you, chère Madame," don't get you very far. When I went up to Maman, they had reached the point of "I won't let go of them," and it's easy enough to believe both warring factions."
And of course Maman lost: when I came up next to her, she remembered that she is a respectable mother and that it would not be possible for her, unless she wanted to sacrifice all dignity before my eyes, to send her left fist smack into the other woman's face. So she regained the use of her right hand, and let go of the panties. End result: one left with the panties, the other with the bra. Maman was in a foul mood all through dinner. When Papa asked what was going on she replied, "You're a member of parliament, you should pay more attention to the degradation of people's attitudes and civil behavior."
Paloma isn't telling us all of this because she's a budding novelist of manners.
But let's get back to the interesting movement: two women in full possession of their mental capacities who suddenly become totally unfamiliar withy a part of their body. It results in a very odd spectacle: as if there were a break in reality, a black hole opening up in space-time, like in a real sci-fi novel. A negative movement, a sort of hollow gesture, in a way.
So I said to myself: if you can pretend to ignore the fact that you've got a right hand, what else can you pretend to ignore? Can you have a negative heart or a hollow soul?
Ms Barbery, perhaps unwilling to risk boring her readers with a twelve-year-old's dissection of such meaty existential problems, introduces a fairy godfather into the proceedings. When one of the tenants of 7, Rue Grenelle dies, and — what's truly remarkable — his widow moves out, vacating an apartment for the first time in Mme Michel's twenty-seven-year career. The new occupant is a Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese man who has made a fortune selling sophisticated sound systems to the French. His friction-free entry into the story, and his immediate recognition of Paloma and Mme Michel as his two most worthy neighbors, give the last third of the novel a strong case of wish fulfillment. Instead of dénouement, we have a severing of restraints so drastic that the author must top it with a drastic surprise. It must be said that she does so without waking us up to her tale's implausibility. We are very sorry to turn the final page, because Ms Barbery's narrators are waspishly lovable and unflaggingly amusing. There is a fine sense of sacrifice, too — we don't feel cheated! But The Elegance of the Hedgehog remains a fantasy, not a truly grown-up novel. Without the gnomic M Ozu, Mme Michel would never have had the opportunity to pour a bit of wisdom into Paloma's heart, and who knows what would have happened at that thirteenth birthday?
Among the blurbs printed on the endpapers, there's an extract from a story in L'Express about a psychotherapist's prescribing the novel to her patients. How philosophical is that! (November 2008)
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