Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

10 May 2010
Marx (Preamble) and as far as Profound Thought No 2 in Camellias
What have we here? Two self-conscious female narrators who each, in their separate universes, know they’re a lot cleverer than anybody around them realises. They both take pride in keeping things that way. Renee, 54, is a concierge and carefully behaves in ways that will make everyone in the upper middle-class apartments believe she’s an ignorant lump. Paloma, a girl in one of the apartments, is convinced she is a genius but keeps this inconvenient truth a secret. For both of them, the age of 12 is significant: one, because that’s her current age; the other, because that’s when her formal education came to an unceremonious end.

Both of them behave secretively all the time. Renee has gone as far as to buy two televisions, so she can have one blaring out popular rubbish while she watches Death in Venice in her back room, weeping at the soundtrack of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. Paloma… Paloma is carefully pilfering her mother’s sleeping pills one at a time, and is going to take an overdose on her birthday in a few months’ time. The apartment will be empty when she does it, so it will be all right for her to burn it down as part of her statement about the futility of existence. (She doesn’t seem to have considered the other apartments.)

What? Eh? Is this a totally ridiculous book, or is it saying clever existential things about the separateness of every human being from every other? It’s too early to judge yet… but the one who is making most of the running in the meaninglessness of life stakes is young Paloma. Every one of her chapters is full of ‘Profound Thoughts’ – as she herself labels them – and her conviction of the value of her own discoveries is as callow as you’d expect a 12-year-old’s to be. Sometimes I’m reminded of the 9-year-old Oskar in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a lost soul in a post-9/11 world who nevertheless knows he’s a geek. And sometimes Paloma is Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, looking into the adult world and, catastrophically, understanding almost none of it. Briony doesn’t actually narrate but she’s another one of those precocious children with their unreliable insights.

And while Paloma dismisses the culture which is literally around her (her father’s a politician and her mother has a PhD in literature), Renee seeks it out. Almost in passing she’s shown herself an expert in Marx and Proudhon, casually mentions Visconti and Proust. So in some ways, for all their similarities, these two are on opposite sides of more than one divide. The others are more blatant, starting with class: Renee, essentially, is a servant. She is from a piss-poor background and has spent 40 years finding out what she’s missed, while Paloma – she knowingly refers to herself as a princess – has it all and hates it. Then there are the differences in age and experience: Renee is happy to tell us about her past while Paloma, trapped in a present she has no respect for, looks towards a future she intends to obliterate.

Will they come together? Will Paloma, who thinks she knows it all, learn something from the old bat who looks after the entrance hall? Too early to tell. But I wonder why Barbery has chosen 16th June, Bloomsday, for Paloma’s 13th birthday apocalypse?

13 May
To the end of Camellias
Over a third of the book gone, and still nothing’s happened. Or, if we buy into Renee’s infatuation with the life of the mind, we’ve had a series of rollercoaster rides to outdo Disneyland Paris. And, oh yeh, we’ve had a death – you can’t have a book of philosophical musings without one. Not that we have any interest in the dead man. If we’ve met him it’s only briefly, and the main interest his death provides is in different people’s reactions to it.

Renee and Paloma, despite the obvious differences, are really the same person. And I’m fairly convinced the person is Muriel Barbery herself. I did some arithmetic: half-way between their ages comes 33, and I wondered whether that’s how old Barbery was when she started to sketch this novel out. (She was about 37 when it was actually published.) Anyway. Her younger self can come out with the sorts of things that a bright adolescent comes out with: the pointlessness of most adults’ lives, the meaningless of everything except what she happens to like – mainly Japanese stuff like haikus and manga comics: she has some growing up to do. Renee is far more comfortable, putting her faith in the power of culture, especially Literature – I’m sure there’s a capital L – and the epiphanies these bring her, which she spends pages describing. She’s also into Japan: she and her ally the Portuguese-born cleaner have their own version of the tea ceremony, and currently she’s into the films of Ozu. Guess where Barbery lives.

So, we’re not to take any of this literally: we’re not to raise too many objections to the impossibly erudite pensées of this autodidact (her word) who left school at 12, or to the girl who turns Sophie in Sophie’s World into a simpleton by comparison. And I mention Sophie’s World on purpose. This novel is full of a kind of philosophy-lite – Barbery is, or was, a philosophy academic – and it often feels like another effort to introduce us to Key Ideas. (I wonder if, like the earlier novel, this one will end with some metafictional/metaphysical gymnastics that will draw attention to the artifice of the little world Barbery has created.)

I shouldn’t be so snooty: there are bits that strike chords, and I guess Barbery’s novel has sold so well because her alter-egos reach insights we recognise. Paloma describes the bourgeois embarrassment of one of the adults – her dog is attempting to mount another – which leads to a scene like a painting by Bacon and a sprained ankle. How we laughed. But it’s not the rather laboured social comedy I’m talking about, it’s Paloma’s – or Barbery’s – take on art. The callow 12-year-old is allowed to be childishly egocentric about it – the function of the Bacon print in their bathroom has, apparently, always been there ‘just so now I could fully appreciate her bizarre contortions’ – but it lets Barbery focus a whole chapter on the question of whether art enables us to see the world differently. I’d say yes, and I often have done.

As for Renee…. She doesn’t feel she has to make it all up from scratch like the precocious Paloma: she does what she can to find out about things, more or less randomly (i.e. like most of us), and draws whatever conclusions she can. There’s a chapter on her efforts to get to grips with phenomenology. She has a good look at it, has a think about the dead ends it appears to lead to – and gives up on it. As you do. In the next chapter she’s far more interested in the everyday solace to be gained from contact with the residents’ pets. This is the chapter with references to a ‘state of grace’, and it has nothing to do with either philosophy or religion; it’s all to do with the way you can reach an understanding with a dog. What’s not to like in a novel that celebrates the simple pleasures?

I wonder if this is what I mean by philosophy-lite. Barbery comes at us with some fairly meaty themes, but the context is so far inside her own comfort zone we hardly notice. The existence (or otherwise) of an immutable, permanent self is dealt with in Paloma’s description of her father’s morning coffee. She decides he reconstructs himself anew every single day – and I don’t know whether Barbery is trivialising a profound question or attempting to imbue a cliché with a profundity it doesn’t really have. And don’t get me on to Renee and her tea: another ritual that Barbery is happy for her to bang on about. A quotation on my copy of the novel describes it as ‘totally French’. Too right: food and drink, pets with pointlessly clever names, the sanctity of correct grammar (both characters piously quote solecisms and inelegant language as atrocities)…. A minute ago I described a scene as being inside Barbery’s comfort zone. The whole world of the novel is one big comfort zone: these characters love their comforts and there’s absolutely nothing to frighten the horses. Or cats or dogs or goldfish.

There isn’t any plot yet, beyond the death I’ve mentioned and the news – gasp! – that the vacant apartment is to be sold to someone outside the family. And… there are conversations in which, usually, Renee or Paloma make it clear that whoever speaks to them never, ever, reaches beyond the persona each of them presents to the world. (There are exceptions, another of this novel’s little comforts: one 19-year-old girl talks to Renee about the animals; there might be others.) It’s another of those faux-profound ideas: does anybody know us (apart from our pets, obviously)? Do we even know ourselves – as individuals, as a species? Gulp.

14 May
On Grammar
I’ve nearly had enough of this. Barbery isn’t even pretending to make the language plausible – she’s simply imagined how she would feel in the situation of being a 54-year-old concierge and the situation of being 12. So these two characters spout the sorts of things she would think of herself. (I’m guessing, but come on.) For me, it’s stopped being interesting and it’s simply become self-indulgent: we get pages on why Japanese sliding doors are, somehow, morally superior to western hinged ones, on why the little steps of Japanese women have attained ‘the level of aesthetic creation.’ This stuff, purporting to be Renee’s thoughts, sounds like the self-regarding hot air a successful French intellectual might come out with. The epiphany of Paloma’s realisation that trees are better than humans in every way is sentimental nonsense, whoever is supposed to be thinking it.

Anyway, On Grammar. This short section isn’t really a French version of Eats, Shoots and Leaves although Lynn Truss would be proud of some of the pronouncements we get. And it’s grammar that has led to the next bit of plot. The new resident is Japanese – bet you didn’t see that one coming – and he’s noticed the look of pain on Renee’s face when someone uses an inappropriate verb. In the same encounter – it’s hard to believe she’s spent 28 years perfecting her lumpen proletariat act when she’s so bad at acting the part – she quotes from the opening of Anna Karenina and he completes the quotation. Reader, she’s been rumbled. And by a Japanese (joy!) called Ozu (rapture!) who has cats (ecstasy!) to which he has given the pointlessly clever names of Kitty and Levin (orgasm – her own cat is called Leo, as in Tolstoy!). By the end of this section, he’s sent her a copy of the novel – in a tastefully understated cover, obviously. As if I care.

Plausibility? Not an issue, apparently. But, as I said, it gives the plot a little shove. He’s spoken to another kindred spirit in the building – Paloma, as if you didn’t guess – about the depth beneath the surface of the concierge. Mlle Precocious has guessed already, and now thinks of Renee as possessing – wait for it – the elegance of the hedgehog. And now he, the richest, most aesthetically well-developed, most polite, most perfect, most Japanese resident – is sending Mrs Tiggywinkle presents. My goodness.

(I’ve just had a thought about Renee’s little slip-ups. All through this section Barbery has had Paloma being satirical about Freud: her mother’s analyst is a fish in a barrel for the worldly daughter, 12 going on 33. But Freud was right sometimes and, obviously, Renee intended to give herself away. Of course, of course: Barbery would have us believe that it isn’t implausible for the façade to slip, the one that’s been like iron with all the other residents – because every other resident is miles away from what she cares for. About 6000 miles, if that’s the distance from Japan.)

[Pause]

I walked away from this for an hour or two… and I realise what I’m really fed up about is the way Barbery uses class. I’ve written about the impossibility of Renee really writing like this: in order to do so she would need the years of interaction with like-minded people that Barbery herself has obviously had, and to have done the donkey-work of thousands of hours of academic (or other) writing. Autodidacts – ones who have lived the life of an intellectual hermit – simply do not write, or even think, like Renee: mere access to culture does not broaden horizons in the way we see here.

Nah. The kind of intellectual and aesthetic sure-footedness she demonstrates is the sentimental construct of (I’m guessing) a middle-class author. Renee is a heroine from a fairy-tale – but not a hedgehog. She’s a frog: one kiss from her knight in samurai armour will allow her to peel away the ugly attributes of the lower orders and reveal her to be the middle-class princess she’s been all along. This book has snob running through it like words though seaside rock – at least, at this half-way point it does – and I’m hating it.

31 May
Summer Rain
I can’t believe I’ve spent over 2000 words on this nonsense. I put the book down about a fortnight ago and eventually picked it up again. What we get in this section is more self-indulgence – Renee going into 3-chapter ecstasies about the joys of a Dutch still life depicting, inevitably, food, while Paloma offers a hymn to the joys of chocolate – and more of the other stuff we’ve already met. Renee’s transformation – via a hair-do and a borrowed dress – into a presentable middle class type sets her up for a meal with the desirable Japanese resident. This is the entire plot of her chapters. And, via Mozart blasting at her as she flushes the toilet, a shared fit of uncontrollable laughter with Ozu 2 and not noticing the time until 3 a.m… she’s discovered summer rain at last. What can she mean, this fan of a Japanese director who loves the seasons and the weather they bring?

Meanwhile… are we nearly there yet? (No.) Paloma goes her own sweet adolescent way, trashing the culture and showing us how clever she is. She’s got the Freudian psychoanalyst’s number, getting him off her back by threatening to expose him. (Eh?) She makes a new friend, an African – it’s ok, she has impeccable middle class credentials – who is good at the kind of reply to smartarse comments that Paloma only thinks of much later. The new friend puts Paloma’s sister Colombe in her place – she’s the philosophy student who dresses poor and doesn’t speak as Paloma would like – and the satire is not impressive. Er… she’s finally realised that if she burns the apartment down, it might not be very good for her friend Ozu’s place. And I seem to remember her discovering something she quite likes – something that might be worth staying alive for, maybe? – but I can’t remember what it is.

What I keep trying to work out is whether we are supposed to see through these two, and their partial, inconsistent positions. Is Barbery setting them up as unreliable and self-indulgent? Or has she merely written a novel consisting mainly of clever things that occur to her, strung out along a tenuous and implausible narrative? I’m still hoping for the former, but I have my doubts.

3 June
Paloma, as far as Chapter 12, Sisters
The low-key dawning of love between Renee and her Japanese friend carries on, involving, mainly, food and Ozu movies. Ok, occasionally there are implausible little chats where he asks her to be the arbiter of taste over some preposterous issue – obviously, he’s just checking she really does see the world in exactly the same way he does – but it’s mainly about bourgeois comforts. However, Barbery knows that if you have boy-meets-girl you have to have the boy-loses-girl moment, and we’ve just had it. Ozu 2 has asked her to a restaurant on his birthday – how clear can he make it? – and she’s said (can you guess?) no.

And this being a novel pitched at such a highly-tuned (yawn) existential level, there’s a reason why. What was I saying about class about half a novel ago? Renee tells us the story of her beautiful sister, who left the woodcutter’s cottage (or whatever) in the forest where the family was brought up, returns to tell impossible tales of vehicles without horses and machines with knobs that open up the world to you and… and reader, this particular fairy-tale is by the Brothers Grimm. When her mother magically knows that she needs to open the door on a night of incessant rain, there’s the bedraggled daughter, and in no time she’s died in childbirth with the baby following her soon after. The moral of the story, for the super-intelligent, aesthetically fine-tuned Renee, is: don’t get ideas above your station.

Oh, did she say that out loud? Yes, and Paloma was listening. And Paloma, in this section that carries her name, is discovering that maybe there is meaning to life after all. The love of parents for a Downs Syndrome child (called Sophie – how we laughed!), the ineffable beauty to be perceived in the fall of a rosebud (described in exactly the way that Renee would describe the same thing), even the sociological reasons why young people might want to burn everything down…. She sees hope in Renee and, obviously, she’s not going to sit back and let her throw away her chance of happiness with a Japanese electronics millionaire who likes nice things.

Are we nearly there yet? (Not far now.)

[Later]
The beginning of Chapter 23
‘I die.’ Knocked down while crossing the road, apparently.… But is it true? Is it the ‘metafictional/metaphysical gymnastics that will draw attention to the artifice’, as I wondered at the end of Camellias? Or is it another trick by this most sentimental of authors? Does Tiny Tim die, or not? My guess is… not.

[Later]
To the end
Wrong. She does die, but not before she gets five solid pages of mental leave-taking. Yawn. Paloma has already had one of those insights into her own behaviour that we’ve been getting a lot of lately: that ‘all my little plans were just the luxury of a problem-free teenager’. Well, duh. And, as she and Ozu 2 hear Satie being played in the courtyard, she realises what you need for survival: ‘Beauty, in this world.’ The end.

It struck me as I read this whole Paloma section that you could publish a Little Book of Pensées based on extracts from it. It’s also struck me that I haven’t mentioned what happened before the clunking intervention of Renee’s death. The crisis of her refusal to go out for the birthday dinner turns out to be no such thing: she phones Ozu 2’s factotum to tell him that she will go after all. Her immediate reward is armfuls of packages of expensive gear in return: she won’t have to wear the dress she got from the dry-cleaners under false pretences (remember that, she’ll come back to it), because she’s got a whole new outfit. Not the Frog Princess then – she’s Cinderella. (What is it with Muriel Barbery and fairy-tales? Are they supposed to hold some ineffable truths beyond our over-intellectualised culture? Am I bothered?) And, over sushi which Ozu has to tell her costs 30 euros per morsel, she discovers true love and her true self. She’s discovered the matchless pleasures enjoyed by truly unregenerate capitalists like him.

Next morning she sees that the courteous cardboard-box-dweller across the road seems to be struggling, so she dashes to help – and is knocked down by a dry-cleaning van. Renee herself points out how hilarious the poetic justice is, so we don’t have to. (I briefly wondered if this might be a kind of authorial political justice: Renee has too ready to accept the capitalist’s 30 pieces of silver. But Ozu 2 is too nice, too much a model of good taste for that message to have any credibility. Barbery’s little cultural echoes, like the Bloomsday date early on, seem to be accidental.)

Anyway, the rest you know. The end, again.

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