Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reading group: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Jenny chose this book which has sold like wildfire in its native France, and, by the time my copy was printed in 2008, over 2.5 million copies worldwide. Seeing it on Waterstone's front table she was intrigued, as it didn't in fact look like a populist book, but a pretty typical serious French novel about some pretty serious themes, being the parallel and converging stories of two people in a very plush Left Bank apartment block: fifty-four-year-old concierge Renee who is hiding from the residents that she is an autodidact passionate and knowledgeable about culture, the arts and philosophy, and twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, extremely bright daughter of intellectually left-wing but bourgeois parents, determined to avoid such a hypocritical future for herself and therefore to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. The narrative consists of alternating sections of their journals as their lives slowly come together - indeed, as they come to recognize each other as fellow spirits - and as they contemplate their artistic and philosophical concerns, most particularly around the subject of 'Beauty' and our ability to apprehend it.

Jenny said that she had enjoyed the book, but that she hadn't been able to escape the feeling whenever she got to the philospohical bits that it was pretentious. Doug immediately said that it was the most pretentious book he had ever read, and some people nodded furiously while others looked dismayed.

A core objection of the detractors was that Renee herself was hypocritical. For one thing, it is hard to see why in this day and age (the novel, despite its dated air, is set in contemporary Paris) she needs to go to such lengths to hide her intelligence and refinement - she puts the residents off the scent by keeping her television running and the smell of boiled cabbage drifting under the door while she reads philosophy or appreciates good tea and home-made fine cakes with her immigrant cleaner friend (her only luxury) - when the residents' alleged prejudices would most likely blind them to the truth about her anyway. Indeed, the opening pages are intended to illustrate this last: here Renee is so disgusted by the intellectual pretension of one of the young adult sons of the apartment block that she lets slip a comment that shows she has a far greater understanding than he of the subject about which he is showing off (Marx), but of course he's so fixed on the notion of her as an ignorant peasant that he doesn't notice. And why does she want to hide it anyway? There is a reason given later which most of us felt didn't hold water, but could it be that Renee, and indeed the author, are as much in thrall as the residents to the old-fashioned French class consciousness which the book claims to despise, and as unwilling to upset it - indeed, pleased to relish it? Thus am I, poor concierge, says Renee, resigned to a total lack of luxury - but I am an anomaly in the system, living proof of how grotesque it is, and every day I mock it gently (note that word 'gently': not savagely or passionately then?), deep within my impenetrable self.

I said that the thing that I really didn't like about the book was its deep contempt. In both Renee's and Paloma's eyes the world is crudely divided into Us-and-Them, goodies and baddies, the beautiful and the non-beautiful souls. Beautiful things should belong to beautiful souls, says Renee, but in this novel it is not the rich, as a rule, who have beautiful souls. She says: For those who have been favoured by life's indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement. ...To the rich ... falls the burden of Beauty. And if they cannot assume it, then they deserve to die. But, as a rule, in this novel they cannot. To be rich in the universe of this novel is to be by definition basically stupid, or at least lacking in insight and true intelligence or culture, however 'arty' or 'literary' like Paloma's despised mother you are, or however academic like her despised sister Colombe who is writing a thesis on the philosophy of an obscure medieval monk. (There is no real evidence that any of Paloma's family are as hypocritical as she claims: as someone said, like most of the residents they remain shadowy stereotypes). Ann said at this point that the book was as much as anything an attack on the pretensions of the French education system, which seems true, but then, I said, it's a hypocritical attack: Renee makes much of the complete waste of public money on the arcane subject of Colombe's research, its uselessness to society and the fact that it's being conducted on the backs of hard-working men and women, but this makes something of a mockery of her own allegiance to the contemplation of art and truth for its own sake (so much for its own sake that she'll hide it from the world). Only the autodidact is intellectually pure, the novel seems to be saying (and some bits of culture are snobbishly more worthy of contemplation than others), and, presumably, that Renee justifies her intellectual life and pursuits by being a hard-working woman herself (not that in fact she seems to do all that much work). All of which makes the accusation that Paloma's mother has (according to Paloma) a 'holier-than-thou-intellectual-left-wing-pose' seem like the pot calling the kettle black.

Others who come in for Paloma's contempt are her rich schoolfriends, particularly for their affectation of the manners and mores of poor kids, which presumably by rights belong, in the division-compounds of this novel, to the poor kids exclusively (and presumably the rich kids should be embracing the mores which the novel despises). Someone in the group commented that the only 'real' person in her class, and the only one Paloma befriends, is truly working class, but is in a fact very much a stereotype, being also black, and that the novel portrays her patronisingly as something of another noble savage (Renee being the first). Meanwhile, there's Renee's Grammar Nazism (a strong feature, indeed, of the French education system which the novel purports to critique). While this is typically French, as I conceded, and while I can be a bit of stickler for grammar myself, it's very over the top here. A resident leaves a casual note for Renee which contains an extraneous comma, and Renee responds thus: 'I was not prepared for such an underhand attack. I collapse in shock on the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad, and then spends two pages of her journal expounding the iniquity of this comma and its author, and ending in the above quote about those rich folks who can't assume the burden of Beauty deserving to die.

Both Paloma and Renee are enamoured of all things Japanese, which in the simplistic context of the novel struck most of us as mere exoticism as well as a contrived coincidence, unless you believe as they do that only the Japanese appreciate true 'Beauty'. (Paloma and Renee do not know each other at the beginning of the novel). (People had noted early in the discussion that, apart from the applied teen-speak in Paloma's, the two journals are very alike in tone, concern and voice.) The novel rather suddenly takes on the character of a fairytale when, after one of the residents dies, who should move into his flat but Kakuro Ozu, a distant relative of Renee's favourite Japanese filmmaker. Sure enough, Ozu turns out to be the one rich person who appreciates true 'Beauty', and is a fellow spirit for both Paloma and Renee whom he befriends individually (he and Paloma immediately share their suspicions that Rene is really a cultured soul). One of my objections to this novel was that, in spite of all the tracts of philosophising, it seemed to me (insofar as I could concentrate on the philosophical bits which often seriously held up the narrative) 'Beauty' is taken as an absolute. At this point, however, it is inadvertently revealed as a matter of mere taste, and material taste at that, more material indeed than the concerns of Paloma's own family. What makes Ozu so cultured is not just his music and his films, but his beautiful blue bowl and his special musical flushing toilet and his elegant sliding doors and his taste in refined Japanese food. And lo, he is after all Prince Charming, who whisks Renee off her feet and sends her, if not a glass slipper, elegant clothes to wear out to dinner with him, such that no one in the lobby recognises her! So much for her intellectual independence and purity, divorced from the taint of riches! Maybe we are meant to see that Renee, like Ozu, is one of those rare souls who can take on the burden of Beauty in spite of riches, but this rather undermines the original conceit of the novel in which her poverty has purified her, and seemed to most of us to pull against a deeper impulse in the novel irrevocably linking riches with hypocrisy.

While we had been saying these things, Clare had been throwing in rather annoyed protests, though without managing to say very much to support her viewpoint. Now she had formulated her thoughts, however, and she said rather passionately that she thought that we detractors were entirely mistaken about the novel, and that all of the inconsistencies we had been pointing out were in fact intended by the author: we were meant to laugh at Renee and Paloma for their hypocrisies. This dumbfounded us rather, and looking back at such ludicrous moments as the comma incident, we could see their potential for comedy. However, none of the rest of us had found that the tone of the novel had led us to read it in that way: while we agreed that there had definitely been comic moments, mainly in relation to other characters (and particularly in Paloma's depictions of them), we felt we had been meant to take entirely seriously the philosophical musings of both main characters, Renee's especially, and in turn the two characters themselves and their situations.

We considered the possibility that perhaps the translation was at fault and had failed to convey the comic tone of the original. However, I said that one thing that made me doubt that the novel was as clever as Clare was saying was that there were some pretty fundamental errors in the narrative voice and structure. Neither journal has a very convincing register in that each directly addresses an objective reader in the way journals simply don't, with phrases like Don't you think? More radically, one of the journals continues after the death of its author, indeed describing that death. Trevor said that that was ridiculous, I couldn't say that, (ie that these things could indicate that the author wasn't being deliberately comic). But also, I said, endings of novels are particularly telling, and don't the final words of this novel constitute a conclusion to the philosophising, which we appear to be meant to take deadly seriously? but as Clare hadn't actually finished reading the novel yet she couldn't comment on that. John said that he also thought that the ending in terms of action/plot (which I won't give away here) was a clumsy cop-out, the only way that the author could find to resolve a basically psychologically and socially unconvincing situation, but Trevor and Jenny and Clare said that they'd liked the ending. New member Andrew said he had found it very moving indeed, and I had to confess that I had found it moving too in spite of everything.

Clare stuck to her guns about the cleverness of the novel, but she did concede that there was some stereotyping of a 'goodies and baddies' nature - she remembered being shocked by Paloma's utterly vicious attack on the dying resident as a 'nasty man', which is backed by not a shred of evidence.

Andrew spoke up and said that actually he had liked this novel, and Trevor said that he had as well, in spite of agreeing with some of the criticisms, and Jenny repeated that, in spite of her own doubts, she had too. Andrew said that most of all he had enjoyed the philosophical passages, as he didn't normally get to read philosophy, and had found it really interesting. The doubters among us groaned, and I said that I'd found them both pretentious and holding up the action. But wasn't I interested in those ideas? Andrew wanted to know. I replied that yes I am, very interested in philosophical ideas, and indeed when it comes to novels I am most interested in novels of ideas, but I think that in novels ideas work best and most dynamically when they emerge through the action. Here they were of course presented wholesale, and I found I just couldn't concentrate on them. Clare said that she didn't have that problem as she was basically familiar with the ideas, having done a philosophy course as part of her degree. I said that I had too, and that I too was familiar with the ideas, but I wasn't inclined to try to follow them here as the way they were presented required a different kind of attention from that with which you read novels (apart from the fact that I was alienated by their proponents' intellectual snobbery). Clare said but this is a very French mode for novels, and Andrew said, but there are plenty of novels where there are long passages of philosophy, what about Crime and Punishment, and Jenny said, but it's an old-fashioned long-winded mode which nowadays she just can't stand any more. And anyway, I said again, there seems a discrepancy between the idea of taking Renee in a comic light and taking her philosophising so seriously, and that on the whole I felt that this reflected the fact that the novel itself was muddled.

Then someone posed the question as to why, in spite of the intellectual content and its difficulties, the novel had been such a runaway populist success. Ann said that she thought that it appealed to a certain kind of intellectual snobbery which is particularly strong in France, whereby one can feel good by check-listing all the cultural references - including, here, the reference in the title to Isiah Berlin's distinction between two different types of writers as single-minded foxes or intellectually versatile hedgehogs. This last had been lost on the rest of us in our group, however, and on reflection it seems to me that in fact not many people would truly appreciate all the references. Therefore, rather, it seems to me, the book operates (and is thus so successful) by flattering most of all the reader who doesn't, by making him/her feel clever in spite of it, as part of an exclusive little intellectual club with Renee and Paloma.

The end result was that we agreed to differ, and the group began to break up and the first of us ventured back out into the snow.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Rachel Fenton said...

I doubt I'll be reading that then! The whole concept of the novel sounds paradoxical (which sounds like a pox!)...I hate things which are so self-referentially intellectually snobbish, whilst thinking they are cleverly mocking the establishment they are actually proving themselves to be top members of...yawn...I like things which are sublte and understated....if things have to tell you they are clever, well, it's not the best advertisement...fantastic review though..part of me wants to read to go - Ha! I knew I wouldn't like it! Thanks.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Must say, Rachel, I am never put off a book by negative review, but always want to look at the book to see if I disagree!

SueG said...

I must admit, I liked the book. I do have a knee-jerk love of all things French, though, and this did bring me into that crazy over-the-top head-up-its-own-arse French world that I can't help but be seduced by. Why this is such a best seller, though, beats me. It was on the NY Times List as well. It is nice to be reminded, though, that a book can be both loved and hated and still be out there strutting its stuff, so to speak.

adele said...

You have more than confirmed my initial prejudice against this novel, which I have avoided since it came out. Now I won't go near it...not the sort of thing I enjoy reading!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh dear Adele. This is the trouble with writing negative reviews, of course: being responsible for putting people off even looking at a book! However, sounds as if you wouldn't have anyway...

Rachel Fenton said...

You'll be pleased to hear my curiosity is getting the better of me...will have to read the thing now! Also, i meant to type "subtle" before...my brain is all of a fuddle lately.

I admire your bravery for reviewing - I am too much of a coward just now - and all reading is so subjective that one cannot worry about putting poeple off, on the contrary...just look what you've done!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ah, now my conscience is clearer!

Elizabeth Baines said...

And I'll be very interested to know what you think, Rachel!

nmj said...

hey eliz, i am 2/3 through this novel and i really like it! for me the key is not to take it too seriously, i find it more funny than anything else, the scene with the comma really made me laugh. i also prefer the concierge's voice - i really dig renee - to the young girl's - she can be a little irritating.

Minnie said...

I agree with you on bad reviews!
Fascinating, reading the account of all these varied responses. I read the book in French, and enjoyed its ironies (lost in trans?). Interestingly, it has been made into a film (l'Herisson) with the wonderful Josiane Balasko playing the concierge's role. The film - based on the book, not entirely faithful - concentrates more than does the novel on Paloma, really using the symbolism of her name and relative innocence to point out the need for a messenger of peace/unity between the disparate groups in la rue de Grenelle. Another link is not only via culture itself but via cultural understanding (France-Japan) - and, finally, via acceptance (Paloma's friendship with the JB character which, in neat circularity, leads to further mutual cultural enrichment!).
Both handle cross-cultural exchange as positive factors, and there's implicitly a plea for more understanding of both marginal and superbright people.
NB Philosophy has long been regarded as important in French life/education, & has been a sixth-form/'A' level equivalent subject for ... ooh, longer than I can remember. So it comes naturally to them (ie is NOT necessarily 'pretentious' - or at least not invariably so!).

nmj said...

I love Josiane Balasko, she will make a fabulous Renee! Will definitely see the film when it comes over here. I am sure the novel does lose ironies in translation, I would love to have read it in French, but these days my French is rusty & I can only read simple (by that I mean more simply written) novels in French... anyway, I just finished reading the book this weekend, the ending did move me, I had a lump in my throat, even though I had treated the novel like a comedy. But I did find the stuff about Lisette a little contrived and annoying.