“The Elegance of the Hedgehog”
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (French: L’Élégance du hérisson) is a novel by the French novelist and professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a stop-over in Geneva, and, as usual when I am in a french speaking area, I headed into a book shop (yes, I keep reading in french, and you probably noticed that my english’s writtings are poor things ^^).
The introduction to the novel and the plot below are extracted from
The book follows events in the life of a concierge, Renée Michel, whose deliberately concealed intelligence is uncovered by an unstable but intellectually precocious girl named Paloma Josse. Paloma is the daughter of an upper-class family living in the upscale Parisian apartment building where Renée works.
Featuring a number of erudite characters, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is full of allusions to literary works, music, films, and paintings. It incorporates themes relating to philosophy, class consciousness, and personal conflict. The events and ideas of the novel are presented through the thoughts and reactions, interleaved throughout the novel, of two narrators, Renée and Paloma. The changes of narrator are marked by switches of typeface. In the case of Paloma, the narration takes the form of her written journal entries and other philosophical reflections; Renée’s story is also told in the first person but more novelistically and in the present tense.
The story revolves mainly around the characters of Renée Michel and Paloma Josse, residents of an upper-middle class Left Bank apartment building at number 7 Rue de Grenelle, one of the most elegant streets in Paris. Divided into eight luxury apartments, all occupied by mostly bourgeois families, the building has a courtyard and private garden.
The widow Renée is a concierge who has supervised the building for 27 years. She is an autodidact in literature and philosophy, but conceals it to keep her job and, she believes, to avoid the condemnation of the building’s tenants if they were to discover how cultured she is. Likewise, she wants to be alone to avoid her tenants’ curiosity. She effects this by preparing concierge-type food and watching low-quality television, and whiles away the time reading works by Leo Tolstoy and Edmund Husserl in private. Her perspective is that “[t]o be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age”.
Twelve-year-old Paloma lives on the fifth floor with her parents and sister whom she considers snobs. A precocious girl, she hides her intelligence to avoid exclusion at school. Dismayed by the privileged people around her, she decides that life is meaningless, and that unless she can find something worth living for, in her words, beyond the “vacuousness of bourgeois existence”, she will commit suicide on her 13th birthday on June 16. She steals her mother’s pills, and she plans to upset her family by burning down the apartment before dying. For the time being she journals her observations of the outside world, including her perceptions of Renée. [...]