The Elegance of the Hedgehog

elegance of the hedgehogGather ’round, everyone, it’s time once again for Jenny to loathe a bestselling novel that everyone else in the whole world adores!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, is about Renée, the downtrodden, frumpy concierge in a high-class Parisian apartment building. The two narrators of the story are Renée herself and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who is a resident of one of the apartments. Both of them are hiding the same secret: they are highly intelligent autodidacts, interested in literature, art, philosophy, movement, beauty, and many other things in the world. Of course, this brings them endless, hidden joy and connection with so many others who share these interests. No! Ha ha! I’m kidding! This makes them both isolated and miserable (Paloma is planning suicide on her thirteenth birthday), and they both despise everyone around them.

Renée spends her narrative episodes explaining the pointlessness, meaninglessness, and banality of the lives of the wealthy people in her building. They buy things! And… other things! Usually in multiples, like nightstands and bedside lamps! They see psychiatrists, that’s how you can tell they live meaningless lives. They study ridiculous philosophy! Oh, wait, Renée also studies philosophy. Well, it’s meaningful and life-giving when she studies it, but it’s “meaningless simpering” when that rich girl studies it. Also, these people don’t look past the surface or get to know her, so they don’t know she has a rich inner life. She doesn’t know them, either, but she can tell by looking that they don’t have rich inner lives. The poor are also beneath contempt, in case you were wondering. They don’t love their children, they communicate in “grunts and gestures,” and they despise other poor people. Oh, and the ignorant! Even worse! The occasional comma error sends her into a frenzy of shuddering: how can people be so bestial?

Paloma is equally contemptuous of those around her: her parents, her sister Colombe, her sister’s boyfriend, her classmates at school. The purpose of her journal entries is to try to find a reason for living before her intended birthday suicide, but everyone and everything is just so boring and corrupt: the education system, the government, her parents trying to get her therapy. She plans to set her apartment on fire. Terrific.

So far, so revolting. I found both these characters just gratingly annoying. Both used their intelligence as a bludgeon to hate and mock others with, and it seemed to be the expectation of the author that the reader would find this an endearing and understandable trait. Aha! A brilliant analysis of the class system in France! Yes! That is how we intelligent people must live — truly alone! Well, I don’t think so.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, a new person moves into the apartment building: a Japanese gentleman named Mr. Ozu. He is very cultured, intelligent, and kind. He immediately sees through the veneer of dowdiness and ignorance Renée and Paloma have created, and reaches out in friendship. They blossom! They instantly become close friends! How heartwarming. Yes?

No.

The message of this book is that if you are exactly like Renée and Paloma, you’re a good person, and if you’re different in the slightest degree, you’re banal, pretentious, shallow, or disgusting somehow. Mr. Ozu is just like Renée. He has the same obsession with Tolstoy (his cat is named Kitty, a detail I did find genuinely great), a connection to her favorite filmmaker, the same love of Dutch painting. And therefore he is perfect. No one else gets the same treatment, not even her friend of thirty years, Manuela, who is “an aristocrat of the heart” but gets condescension around vocabulary. I know the end is supposed to show this big joyful moment of connection, but actually these characters don’t grow at all.

Oh, and speaking of vocabulary, I know this is a translation from the French (by Alison Anderson), but the language is so cringey. It’s extremely flowery and over-erudite; she never uses a twenty-five cent word when a five-Euro word will do. (I kept thinking of the quotation from Lolita when Humbert Humbert says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”) There are long, digressive passages on philosophy (including one in which she says, “phenomenology is a fraud,” and then goes on to explain what it is for four pages. Honestly.) And the translation itself is moderately lumpy, with the French showing through. There are at least four or five examples of words being misused, and coming from someone who nearly has a fit over the difference between “bring” and “take,” that’s hard to stomach.

So. I hated it. That being said, every reviewer on earth disagreed with me, and it was a huge bestseller in France and also a NYT bestseller. Perhaps you liked it! Perhaps you will tell me how wrong I am, in the comments! I’m as ready as a hedgehog; fire away.

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25 Responses to The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. Perhaps you liked it! Perhaps you will tell me how wrong I am, in the comments! ” Nope, disliked it as much as you do.

    • Jenny says:

      Why, particularly? I’m interested to hear your take.

      • It’s some time since I read the book, so I had to look up what I wrote about it at the time. It boils down to this: to me the book sounded as though the author had a notebook with lots of interesting thoughts, that she decided to turn into a novel instead of the more obvious essay collection, because nobody reads essay collections. So she created two characters as vehicles for her ideas. However, these characters unfortunately struck me as completely unbelievable. A child of 12 with hardly any life experience at all writes as though she is a sage handing out wisdom, and a concierge who has never talked to anybody except her proletarian husband and the Portuguese cleaning lady delivers speeches that would be far more appropriate for a professor at the Sorbonne. Since I found these characters so improbable and unrealistic (and, frankly, ludicrous) I could not possibly feel for them – and that I think is a severe flaw for any novel. Finishing it was a real slog.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for this! So helpful. I also thought it was quite implausible, though I didn’t address that in my review. Not so much Renee, since people can get a lot out of reading, but definitely Paloma.

  2. writerrea says:

    Haven’t read it, because it just didn’t appeal to me, but a quick visit to Goodreads shows you are far from alone.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t have a Goodreads account (Teresa does) but one thing I know from book blogging is that I am never alone! The closest I came was when I violently disliked The Book Thief.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I loved this book when I read it years ago (http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2009/07/elegance-of-hedgehog.html)
    but I don’t read French and it was a different time. I might react differently today.
    What I loved most was how I thought this book captured the way people close themselves off from others and how little it can take to open them up again.
    Maybe that theme is still important for this country today.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, though, if that’s true, that message really didn’t come through for me. I definitely saw Renee and Paloma closing themselves off from others (and justifying it by how “intelligent” and “educated” they were, which is something I loathe, seeing as often as I do in academia) but I sure didn’t see them opening up, except to people exactly like themselves. They didn’t open up to the other people in the building they’d previously considered banal or shallow. In fact, they literally closed the door in their faces. They just reinforced their own prejudices. So maybe that theme is important in terms of a reflection of what this country is like, but not as a way out, in my view.

  4. I’m so happy to read your review! It’s much more eloquent than anything I could have written but sums up my feelings about this book. I found it pretentious, overbearing, and condescending.

  5. (The book, that is – not your review)

  6. Marcia Lengnick says:

    I tried twice to “get into” this book..just couldnt do it..finally gave it to a friend, whose reading taste I admire, and she LOVED it. When our book club, LITERATE LADIES, chose it for a discussion, I skipped the meeting…

    • Jenny says:

      I read it for a book club, too! My adored, wonderful women’s book club. I must say that our discussion was great and I’m glad I went.

  7. Dear Jenny, I read this book years ago (and I believe I may have reviewed it on my website, though not for sure). I think it’s one of the books which people derive benefit from according to what they bring to it. You are writing now as a practiced and experienced reviewer of many years’ standing, and it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever have cast doubt on your intelligence or ability or right to an opinion. I can’t speak to your early life, but mine was spent largely among people who had no regard for the intellectual life, and who found literature a subject for mockery. Therefore, I liked Renee and Paloma, because they resounded with the aloneness I felt once upon a time, regardless of the fact that since then I have gotten my professional degrees and lived among others who share my interests. To me, their attitudes are real and human, because they are part of the hard, armored shell of defensiveness they put up toward those around them: it’s not that I condone these attitudes, indeed, there’s much to disapprove in them, but I think I accept and understand them because of what I went through. Everyone doesn’t respond to the same stimulus the same way either, so that others who had my experience might have responded with an attitude inclined to melt the hardhearted or snobbish among whom they found themselves. I did like the book, but I also found the section on phenomenology heavy slogging.

    • Jenny says:

      I so appreciate your sharing that. A wonderful woman in my book club shared that her professional experience was similar to what you describe here — she worked as a scientist, but didn’t have the advanced degrees to make her “officially” intelligent in the eyes of her peers. This book truly resonated with her, and especially the way Renee had to adjust her language and tone so as not to be the concierge who “gave herself airs.” I think that’s an experience many women and minorities have had — to step back and flatter others’ egos so their own brilliance won’t look too uppity. I know there is human truth to that, and I appreciate having that pointed out to me.

  8. Jeane says:

    Ha ha, I think I had a copy of this book in hand once, but didn’t get far enough into it to even realize what it was about. The writing put me off that much.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I didn’t read this in French, so the writing might have been more charming in the original, but in English I really didn’t like it. There were a few nice moments (the description of the Dutch painting is very pretty, for instance) but for the most part it’s just very harsh, heavy language, to my mind.

  9. Simon T says:

    I was definitely in the ‘ugh’ camp. This is what I wrote on my blog at the time (mostly a quotation from the novel that was far more apt than it intended to be):
    “Many intelligent people have a sort of bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself. They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid. And when intelligence takes itself for its own goal, it operates very strangely: the proof that it exists is not to be found in the ingenuity or simplicity of what it produces, but in how obscurely it is expressed.”

    Two irritating people pretend to be less intelligent than they are. One is thinking about killing herself. Both waffle on about philosophy a great deal. I just kept imagining how these sort of characters would be lampooned in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

  10. aparatchick says:

    You’re not alone. I read it (well, two-thirds of it anyway) a few years ago. I hated it. Hated it. Why did I hate it? I found it pretentious, and I just can’t abide that.

  11. annetteliron says:

    Perhaps you don’t appreciate European literature. I cannot understand anyone not enjoying the book. Obviously, there is a vast difference between European authors and American authors. European authors are influenced by their history, culture. History and wars have shaped their writing style. European literature has roots in the mists of time. America’s publishing history only dates back to the 18 century. I am an ex-pat living in France and I have known women like Renee. The class system between the wealthy and not so wealthy has to be seen to be understood. The rich like to feel superior which is why Renee keeps her intelligence behind a facade. One has to know and understand a little about French history to understand The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It isn’t just a book …it is a statement.

    • jbrown14464 says:

      You couldn’t know this, but I teach French literature at a university, have lived in France, and have a wide background in European literature of different kinds, so it’s definitely not that I don’t appreciate European literature. It’s that I didn’t like this book, or its message, or its writing, for reasons I enumerate in the review. Interesting that you say you can’t imagine anyone not liking the book. I can always imagine someone liking something I don’t like, or vice versa. People are different from each other! Crucial to remember.

      • annetteliron says:

        I agree people are different…thank goodness. I have been a freelance writer for more years than I care to remember and before re-locating to France I taught creative writing and journalism. My specialist subject is history…European history. My bookshelves are filled with European literature but pride of place is given to John Steinbeck, America’s greatest. The books one reads and appreciates is akin to politics and religion…not subjects to enter into silly arguments about. I appreciated the brilliance of Muriel Barbery…you didn’t.

      • Jenny says:

        Exactly! Very succinctly put! :)

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