I read this lovely novel recently called The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Alison Anderson translator) and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it has also been made into a film. However being as that the book was originally written in French, the film is also in French. You might however be able to find it in your local video store with English sub-titles. I must say the book’s translator has done a fine job of Barbery’s text, although I cannot vouch for the original French text as I’ve yet to read it. I have perused many reviews on the Web for both the original and translated texts and am delighted to report that most of these reviews are quite positive.
Here is a short synopsis on the story taken from the Goodreads site; “We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her many employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.
Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s time-worn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.”
I enjoyed this story immensely as both Paloma and Renee narrate their views on existentialism. However they do so in such a way that somehow transcends the subject. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean. The novel is quite eloquent in its prose and at 325 pages, reads deftly and gracefully.
Both narrators display a love of language about how one expresses thoughts, images and ideas. Renee sums this up well;“I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.” As well as Paloma who states, “Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty.” Taken from that quote, I had to completely agree with this statement because I must confess to being a language snob, which is one of the reasons why I loved this novel. I often nitpick when it comes to proper spelling regardless of my profession. Even if I hadn’t become a teacher, I would still feel this way since I’ve picked up on these discrepancies since I was a girl. Sometimes I just cannot help myself and often correct people who mispronounce or incorrectly misspell words and sentences. In social settings, such as parties, I hold my tongue and do my best to ignore the often nerve-grating pronouncements (or should I say mis-pronouncements) of fellow revelers. At those moments, I usually try to find alcoholic beverages to steel my nerves and more often as not, succeed in silencing the persistent voice within my brain that needs to correct Grammar!
Grammatical peeves aside this novel is wonderfully written with plenty of insightful observations about life in general and philosophical musings on the human condition. This is a thought-provoking essay on the ways in which we treat different classes of people as we perceive them to be and not necessarily who they are. I think that most of us are guilty of assuming that some people are as obtuse as they seem, that is to say that we often judge outward appearances rather than get to know people as they truly are. I believe that this is a human foible that we’ve all been guilty of exhibiting from time to time. These judgments have in turn often created the division of classes and its subjected targets feel less than adequate as they struggle to fit into societal norms. Who among us hasn’t used these stereotypes to define people that we may see everyday? You’ll instantly know what I mean when I mention sanitation workers, janitors, and specifically in this case, the concierge, right?
Here is an observation from Paloma; “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terribly elegant.”
Societal judgments are precisely what Paloma and Renee deal with as they come to realize that they are kindred spirits, though generations apart. I urge you to give The Elegance of the Hedgehog a try and you will hopefully find it equally delightful. If you can rent the film, it is a delightful treat and filmed by Mona Achache (2009) In French the original title is Le Herisson and in English it is simply, The Hedgehog.
This is the word for today, folks, with 14 more days till Christmas!