Monday, 13 June 2011

Review:- Muriel BARBERY – “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

(Translated Alison Anderson)
Year Published: - 2006 in France as L’élégance du Hérisson
Where the book was from:- A Christmas gift
ISBN: - 978-1-906040-18-5
Pages: - 320pp
Genre: - General Fiction
Location:- Paris
How I came across it: - Read a blog review
Rating: - ***** *****

One sentence summary:- The concierge of a block of wealthy person’s flats lets us in on a little secret – despite her dowdy appearance, peasant background and grumpy manners she’s an autodidact who has found an ideal hiding place. Meanwhile (OK that’s two sentences!) a twelve year old would-be suicide in one of the flats is trying to find a purpose in life.

Describe the plot without giving anything away:- Renée, the fifty plus concierge of a Parisian apartment block, is a widow and appears to the residents as a typical example of her genre – uneducated, miserable and uncultivated. Once her door is closed and the TV is blasting away as her means of convincing them they are right (whilst she hides in her quiet back room) she enjoys her passions of art, culture, literature and the examination of the human condition. Her only friend is a Portuguese immigrant – an aristocrat by nature if not birth - who cleans a couple of the flats and shares tea with her. After many years thus hidden away she finds her mask slipping and begins to make a few mistakes which cause her employers to regard her in a new light. Fortunately a concierge only merits a momentary second thought so the slips are not too much of a problem at first.
In one of the posh flats above Renée, a twelve year old girl, Paloma Josse, has decided that the futility of life merits her ending it on her thirteenth birthday – and setting fire to the flat in the process.

Then the death of one of the privileged residents causes a revolution at number 7 Rue de Grenelle. (Grenelle means wooded area where rabbits live – no coincidence I feel).

General comments:- I defy anyone to read this book without being deeply moved. The skilful portrayal of humans with all their failings and the philosophy suggests there may be redemption to be found in literature, culture and, above all, human relationships. Just may be!
The translator, Alison Anderson, deserves a mention for the skill with which she has captured some of the original concepts without making them seem obviously translated and without losing anything of the


People aim for the stars and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.

Olympe takes a breath before reaching the best part of the story – ‘she displayed mildly haemorrhagic urine!’ Dear God, this is good. If she had said, There was blood in her pee, the story would have been over in no time. But Olympe, cloaking her cat doctor’s uniform with emption, has also adopted the terminology,. I have always found great delight in in hearing people speak like this…

And on the way home I thought pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.

I untie the string and tear the paper. It’s a book, a fine edition bound in navy-blue leather of a coarse texture that is very wahi. In Japanese wahi means ‘an understated form of beauty, a quality of refinement masked by rustic simplicity’. I’m not really sure what this means but this binding is most definitely wahi.

As far as I can see, only psychoanalysts can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering.

I still find it very difficult to believe that florists and hairdressers are not parasites, the former living off nature, which belongs to everyone, the latter performing with an outlandish amount of play-acting and smelly products a task which I can expedite in my own bathroom with a pair of well-shaped scissors.

Fine lingerie is already an interesting name. What else would it be – coarse lingerie? Anyway, what it means, in fact, is sexy lingerie; you won’t find your grandmother’s sturdy old cotton drawers in a place like this.

For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the word ‘never’. And it’s really awful. You say the word a hundred times a day but you don’t really know what you’re saying until you’re faced with a real ‘never again’.

- Muriel Barbery was born in 1969. Barbery entered the École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud in 1990 and obtained her agrégation in philosophy in 1993. She then taught philosophy at the Université de Bourgogne, in a lycée, and at the Saint-Lô IUFM (teacher training college). L'Élégance du hérisson was her second novel. The first, Une Gourmandise, which appeared in Anderson's English translation as Gourmet Rhapsody in 2009 also briefly featured Renee. L'Élégance du hérisson (translated into English by Alison Anderson as The Elegance of the Hedgehog) topped the French best-seller lists for 30 consecutive weeks and was reprinted 50 times. It has sold over 2 million copies.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this book very much as well, see my review here:
    I also just read her 2nd book, translated by the same person:
    On my review, I put the link to an amazon interview of both Barbery and her translator. very interesting.
    Emma @ Words And Peace


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