French Female writers, French Literature, Gourmet Rhapsody, Igelkottens Elegans, L'élégance du hérisson, Madame Renèe Michel, Monsieur Arthens, Mr. Kakuro Ozu, Muriel Barbery, Paloma Josse, paris, Rue de Grenelle No. 7, The elegance of the hedgehog
With The Elegance of the Hedgehog I could make it very easy for myself and simply write: brilliant. Leave it at that and do something else with my day. However, I guess that’s cheating and not really in the style of this blog. Because for once, this was one of these books which, when you read it, for every page you turn you think “how did she come up with this mesmerising story?” For every chapter you read, and they’re very short chapters come to that, you simply have to go on to the next. And the next. And the next. You get the picture.
The book has been lying in the infamous pile of books to be read for some time. My better half tried reading it a few months ago, and, though it’s set in Paris, the city we both love the most out of all European cities, she couldn’t cope with Barbery’s writing. She dismissed it as “philosophical tosh”, or something similar, then put it down for good. Me though, I cried when I had finished it. Not just because of how it ends, but for the fact that it had ended. For the fact that I had to leave the world of Madame Michel, twelve-year old Paloma Josse and Mr. Ozu and their quirky neighbours.
The elegance of the Hedgehog is set in a posh parisian neighbourhood, more exactly No. 7 Rue de Grenelle, in the 7th Arrondissement. Madame Renée Michel is the janitor, a highly intelligent on the border to autistic lady who have spent her entire life not showing her intelligence to anybody. For her it has been a way of surviving. Showing whom she really is would be detrimental to her entire existence. Or so she believes.
In consecutive chapters we follow Madame Michel’s thoughts on life in general and the ins and outs of the tenements, and the pondering of Paloma Josse. Hers, Josses’, is not too different from Madame Michel’s in many ways, but seen from a twelve-year olds perspective it gives another depth to the story, and this is one of the things which creates the magic in the book. Not that telling a story from two different sides is particularly inventive per se, but the sensitive way Barbery handles the prose and the attentive way of moving the story forward is what gives the book an extra dimension. The Elegance of the Hedgehog also has a semi-romantic shimmer over it since Madame Michel, widow since over a decade, finally gets to have an adult love affair with Mr. Ozu, whom immediately sees through her fake persona when he moves in to No. 7 Rue de Grenelle. There is nothing seedy, nothing cheap about the affair; just pure understanding of each other and each other’s quirks and shortcomings. Acceptance and shared interests. Beautiful.
Then there is the curious case of the twelve-year old. Paloma Josse, daughter of a bureaucrat high up in the French political hierarchy and a neurotic stay-at-home mother. Paloma is also the sister of an almost twenty-year old hysterical, boho-chiq final year Lycée student who drives Paloma mad with her high-pitched cackle about her boyfriend and with a dress sense more suitable to an impoverished communard in the 1968 revolts rather than a spoilt, wealthy upperclass girl with a trust fund. All this, the general stupidity of the modern society and in particular the teachers and politicians of France, has forced Paloma to a radical decision she will not change: on her thirteenth birthday she will commit suicide and set fire to the family’s apartment. There is no other way to change her destiny. To achieve this, she has taken a pill or two from her mothers stock of “anti-hysterics” from the medicine cabinet every week for the last year. Her mother takes so many anyway, so she will never notice, Paloma thinks. But when Mr. Ozu moves in to the house the order of things changes. The world is rocked under the feet of not only Madame Michel, but Paloma too. Finally there is a calmness and understanding in the house. Finally Paloma have met someone that understands her. Someone that talks to her like she deserves and not just treats her like another annoying, clueless kid. But will this meeting change her final decision?
This is the second novel by Barbery set in the house on No. 7 Rue de Grenelle. The first, Gourmet Rhapsody, circles around the famous food critic Monsieur Arthens lying on his death bed. It is by his death the flat Mr. Kakuro Ozu buys is put on the market, and the winds of change starts to blow in the hearts of the two very loveable characters Madame Michel and Paloma Josse. With this her second novel Barbery has managed to create a very French, self-contained universe full of intellectual teasing, big emotions and intelligent stirrings in the pot called the French Novel. The elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the best books I have come across in a very long time. I can’t put it more straightforward than that.