The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (translated from the French by Alison Anderson) - June 8, 2012

Only seven members attended our June 8th meeting to discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French philosophy teacher and writer Muriel Barbery.  We can only hope that it was not the book itself that kept people away, but the fact that members are either out of town, or have out-of-town visitors. 

Maggie started the meeting by asking how many had read the book in English and how many in the original French, and then asked how many had enjoyed it.  Americans Sue and Maggie read the book in English, and enjoyed it.  Agnes, Mariannick, Mireille and Y-J, all French, read the original version.  One of them hated it and said it was a waste of time.  The other three said they liked the book, but one of them added that she did not enjoy the first part, with its talk about suicide.  Moving along, she felt that the philosophy parts were difficult to understand, even though she read some phrases up to five times.  Rosie, who is English, read the book in French, but said she had to force herself to finish it, and skipped over the parts she found difficult to read.  She also said the reader is probably not meant to understand everything, and even if he or she does not understand, it doesn't really matter.  She felt the author was mocking, and that the characters inspired ridicule.  Agnes complained of the verbosity, and felt the author was trying to fill out the characters.  We agreed that we did not like Renée, the concièrge, finding her nasty, pretentious, and not at all the enlightened person that she seems to think she is.  She obviously despises and resents the upper classes, and we are not even sure she understands all the books she claims to have read.  They do not appear to have made her a better person.  Mireille objected to her self-proclaimed status as an intellectual, saying an intellectual should not be self-proclaimed.  Sue referred to her arrogance in feeling superior to just about everyone else around her, but Y-J said it was more like hubris, and Maggie felt it was an inferiority complex that she was trying to cover up by pretending to feel intellectual superiority.  According to some internet notes, the author said the character of the concièrge was "a vehicle for social criticism."  Maggie asked about the credibility of the characters, and of the situations, such as Renée's pre-school situation at home.  Renée claimed that she had never been called by name until her first day at school.  And what about her conversation with Gégène, the homeless man on the street corner?  How believable was that?  Y-J said the book was like an inverted fairy tale.  Mireille said the character of the concièrge was a complete fake.  If she really had all the good qualities she claimed, she would not have had to hide them.  Three members said that they had had concièrges in their buildings in the past.  Mireille said that her brother, who is educated and intelligent, is a concièrge.  Agnès said it's not a good idea to "mess with" the concièrge, or you might not get your mail.  Y-J said it's obvious that Renée is doing her job grudgingly.


Although Maggie enjoyed the journal/diary chapters of 12-year-old Paloma, she was uncomfortable with the train-of-thought chapters of the concièrge.  Rosie said that it is as if Renée is telling her story to someone.  One member did not find any difference between the "voices" of the two narrators, despite their differences in age and social status, and Maggie wondered if more readers would have failed to make the distinction if the type face in the book had not been different for Renée and Paloma.  Mireille said she would have enjoyed the book more if it had been entirely in the child's voice.  Rosie said that if a teenager were clever enough to write Paloma's journal/diary, it would be exactly as it is in the book.  The character of 12-year-old Paloma, who is, in her own words, "about to leave childhood behind," and who refuses to talk to her parents and older sister, is perfect, except, perhaps, for the supposed suicidal intentions, which may just be a show and meant to impress.  Maggie felt that Paloma in Renée's lodgings was so unlike the Paloma writing in her diary as to be unbelievable, but others felt that was "normal" for a pre-teenager.


Maggie, who cited several phrases from the book that she considered "lovely," mentioned that one reviewer felt that Alison Anderson's translation "mislays much of the poetry of the original," and another said that it "too often mimics the structure of French sentences."  Pleading perfectionist, Maggie said she was at first disturbed by Renée's grammatical errors, especially since Renée complains of the errors of the other people in the building (e.g. confusing take with bring), but then realized that errors such as someone left their book would not occur in the original French (quelqu'un a laissé son livre).  Y-J said that the book was a collection of pretentious assertions, and was heavy and redundant.  She also felt that there was too much stress on Japanese art and culture.  She remarked that the Japanese are noted for their subtlety, but Renée is in no way subtle.  Rosie again said that the author was trying to prove that she is clever.  She is mocking.  Renée mocks those around her, but so does Barbery.  Sue said the author seems terribly, terribly insecure.  When she writes about Renée, so many things don't fit, and it feels like she is trying to say something about her own life.  Rosie added, "Well, that's what you get when a philosophy professor becomes an author."  Maggie was troubled by several other questions.  Where is Renée from, and what brought her and her husband to Paris from the farm where she lived with her family and the nearby factory where he worked?  Rosie said none of that matters, and some readers object to superfluous information.  What matters is the story.  But is The Elegance of the Hedgehog, in fact, a story, or rather a series of essays?


Although our discussions are often prefaced by a biographical note about the author, Maggie preferred to share her notes about Muriel Barbery later in the discussion, in order not to influence responses to questions.  She noted that Barbery currently lives in Japan with her husband, to whom she dedicated the book.  The dedication reads "For Stéphane, with whom I wrote this book," but Barbery says that does not mean that he actually wrote, but rather that he pushed her along and encouraged her.  She avoids the media, but has given a couple of interviews.  She says she started writing as a child, but never with the intention of being published.  She has read War and Peace several times, and Tolstoy is one of her favorite authors.  She says that her manner of writing is very disorganized, but the structure of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, with its alternating and well-ordered narration, is just the opposite.  She says she very much enjoyed writing the book.  The character of Renée also appeared in Barbery's first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody (Une Gourmandise).  Barbery's editor remarked to her that her concièrge was not obliged to talk like a fish-monger.


In closing, Y-J asked if anyone could suggest a different title for the book.  Obviously not Metamorphosis, which has already been taken, and on a different level.  There was an English vote for The Cod Philosophers, and Mireille said why not just Clap-Trap Verbosity.  Sometimes members who have not read a book before one of our discussions are encouraged to read it after hearing all that has been said, but we fear that that might not be the case this time, despite the fact that the book was on the best-seller list in France for 102 consecutive weeks - longer even than Dan Brown's best-sellers.  According to one reviewer, "the philosophical element in the novel partly explains its appeal in France, where philosophy remains a compulsory subject."  It was also a best-seller in Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and the U.S.  Of note is that it was not as popular in Britain.  A review in The Times Literary Supplement called the book "pretentious and cynical, with barely any story.  It reads more like a tract than a novel, but lacks even a tract's certainty of purpose.  The characters are problematic: most are puppets, and those that aren't are stereotypes."  Although that gave us a laugh, it is in keeping with our own comments.


When Maggie asked what the others thought about the ending of the book, two adjectives were proffered.  One was "stupid" and the other was "flat," and if you have read the book, you'll understand the joke.


According to the internet, a Prada shop now occupies 7 rue de Grenelle, the address of the building in the book.


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