Michael Dirda on 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 14, 2008


By Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa. 325 pp. Paperback, $15

Renée Michel is the dumpy, nondescript, 54-year-old concierge of a small and exclusive Paris apartment building. Its handful of tenants include a celebrated restaurant critic, high government officials and members of the old nobility. Every day these residents pass by the loge of Madame Michel and, unless they want something from her, scarcely notice that she is alive. As it happens, Renée Michel prefers it that way. There is far more to her than meets the eye.

Paloma Josse also lives in the building. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this 12-year-old views the world as absurd and records her observations about it in her journal. She despises her coddled existence, her older sister Colombe (who is studying at the École normale supérieure), and her well-to-do parents, especially her plant-obsessed mother. After careful consideration of what life is like, Paloma has secretly decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday.

These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will -- this is going to sound corny -- fall in love with both. In Europe, where Muriel Barbery's book became a huge bestseller in 2007, it has inspired the kind of affection and enthusiasm American readers bestow on the works of Alexander McCall Smith. Still, this is a very French novel: tender and satirical in its overall tone, yet most absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death. Out of context, Madame Michel's pensees may occasionally sound pretentious, just as Paloma might sometimes pass for a Gallic (and female) version of Holden Caulfield. But, for the most part, Barbery makes us believe in these two unbelievable characters.

Unbelievable? Well, let's start with Madame Michel, the very stereotype of the Parisian concierge. Despite her appearance and outward manner, she possesses a mind of the most infinite refinement and precision, loves Mozart (and detective novelist Michael Connelly), regards Purcell's "When I am laid in earth" (from the opera "Dido and Aeneas") as "the most beautiful music for the human voice" in the world, can casually quote from Marx's Theses on Feuerbach ("Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression"), studies and rejects the philosophy of Husserl, shudders at slovenly grammar and even practices the Japanese tea ceremony in her private backroom. In short, this human dishrag, who left school at the age of 12, is more aware and more cultivated than anyone around her. Nonetheless, her inner life is entirely clandestine, and during the day she dons the mask of the dumb peasant that the world thinks she is. But why?

"I was the child of nothing. I had neither beauty nor charm, neither past nor ambition. I had not the slightest savoir-faire or sparkle. There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger," a hunger, that is, for books, art, music and speculative thought.

That's what she tells us initially. But there are other, more emotional reasons for Madame Michel's withdrawal into herself, and nearly all of them arise from the great gulf of class. For example, she helped her late husband, Lucien, in overseeing the apartment house, until he grew sick:

"To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people -- perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire -- experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him every day in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a non-entity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never fully emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury nor artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than half a shudder of revolt. The fact that we might be going through hell like any other human being, or that our hearts might be filling with rage as Lucien's suffering ravaged our lives, or that we might be slowly going to pieces inside, in the torment of fear and horror that death inspires in everyone, did not cross the mind of anyone on these premises."

As you can see, Madame Michel writes in extremely formal prose, though her aesthetic tastes prove surprisingly eclectic. While she is drawn to Japanese simplicity, to those still moments of the turning world when we perceive the beauty within the fugitive and transitory, she's no snob and tells us that anyone who wants to understand the art of storytelling should study the film "The Hunt for Red October": "One wonders why universities persist in teaching narrative principles on the basis of Propp, Greimas or other such punishing curricula, instead of investing in a projection room. Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers."

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