The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery; Europa Editions
I cannot tell you how pleased I am to be reviewing what I consider to be a five star novel as the first book review of 2013. After a smattering of so-so, also-rans, and sub-par reads, I was recommended this novel by someone in my family. (Not something that happens often.) I ordered it from Amazon and got it sometime after Christmas. The Elegance of the Hedgehog ( L’Élégance du hérisson ) was first published (in French) in 2006 and was translated into English in 2008. I did not know this for a fact until after reading the novel, but the author, Muriel Barbery, is a philosophy professor. I say “for a fact” because as I read it – I probably knew this in some subconscious level. After all, what other profession could keep me amused, enthralled, and at points ready to argue. I have a lot to say about this novel, so settle in!
First of all, it seems there are a lot of people out there who have read the novel and find it pretentious. They use this word to describe it and then go on to pontificate about how much they disliked it. I wholeheartedly agree that it is pretentious as heck. And that is merely one of the reasons I love it. There are lots of “pretentious” books out there. Let me give some examples: Wicked by Gregory Maguire, Embassytown by China Mieville, One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell, Persuasion by Jane Austen. I consider these novels to be in the category of BADLY pretentious, which please note, is not a charming self-assured pretentiousness. In order to be pretentious in a good way, one must also be arrogant – but, like Kid Rock sings, “It aint braggin’ – if ya back it up.” Frankly, Barbery can and does “back it up.”
One clue that a philosopher wrote this: there are direct, short, brutally assertive sentences. Only the mad and confident philosopher dares (particularly in the modern world) to write sentences that actually assert things. None of this wishy-washy ambiguity. No political correctness. No hedging, weasling, or whining. It’s so refreshing to read – and so comfortable for me to read. Barbery makes assertions in the sense of she states it how it is and does not care to coddle readers who may disagree. And we are talking about topics like the divine, Art, beauty, and humanity. You do not have to agree with these bold, frank assertions, but I sure did enjoy reading them for their clarity, brevity, and staunchness.
Throughout the book there are plenty of positions taken by the characters to lead the reader to want to disagree at times with everything. There is a feeling of nihilism. I think readers rebel from the bold assertions (and criticisms) leveled from autodidact characters. And the whole thing offends every sensibility our egalitarian social slumber has forced upon us.
Moreover, this is why the novel had to be French. Only the French (and a philosopher) could possibly have written this work. Because throughout there are direct criticisms of humanity and social classes. Indeed, there is a direct complaint against a specific class of people: namely, the yuppie, the nouveau riche, and the pretentious. This class of people is presented as inauthentic, insufferable, obnoxious, and self-absorbed in foolishness. And the fact that these complaints come from a member of the lowest class who is self-taught in higher intellectual pursuits, clearly is reason to annoy readers. My personal suspicion is that we can discern a great deal about the readers themselves based on their reaction to the book. Naturally, the yuppie (interestingly to whom this book is actually marketed!) will despise it with great rancor.
I’m a blueblooded elitist. I’m a professional philosopher. I harbor a lot of distaste for the yuppie-class. I absolutely loved this novel.
Do you see what I did there? I described myself in direct assertions. I used words to describe positions that are, at best, uncommon and at worst vex everyone in society. It’s not “polite” or deemed “acceptable” to be a blueblood. Or a philosopher. Or an aristocrat. Or an elitist. I know that. But I am what I am and I would rather not lie and say I am other than I am. However, I am not foolish enough to think that being a person of these traits is well-accepted in the USA in 2013. It conjures all sorts of images of Boss Tweed, conservative, Establishment things that irk the WASP who was grown to love American concepts of society and the Protestant Work Ethic. That being said, yeah, I do not go about flaunting and putting on airs and exhibiting any of these opinions and positions of mine. I mention this because many reviewers of this novel were unable to fathom why a person would pretend to be dumb or hide their intelligence.
I do it all the time. One cannot go around being truly intelligent – it rubs people the wrong way. And, of course with great predictability, they call it being arrogant or pretentious. Sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. You cannot use an extensive vocabulary with your waitress, the gas station attendant, or the cashier. I know – I’ve tried; and gotten the blank looks, misunderstood glare, and the horrible dullard grunts of “hunh?” So you have to speak the language of the culture you are in. Sometimes, right wrong or indifferent, if you want to function in society – you have to be a chameleon. Among the working man, you blend in and get along. Don’t worry – it goes in reverse. When among the yuppie nouveau riche one has to be a certain way as well, lest one usurp and undermine their fragile edifice of self-importance. Gradually, with astute care, you can use clues and hints and discover more about your interlocutor – and then adapt and open up the conversation to a broader and more developed one. But it’s a subtle give and take. Don’t just march up to people speaking without slang. I have a tendency of using archaic words, but they are familiar and commonplace to me. I get a lot of stares of non-comprehension.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote a poem about this. Maybe I’ll share it. We’ll see. I was young and silly. But it makes the point better than anything I’ve said so far.
Anyway, the point is that the novel offends people. Because, I think, only rueful, thick-skinned, intelligent, and witty people can “get” this novel for what it is. After all, before everyone starts calling the author and her characters “pretentious” or “holier-than-thou” or “high & mighty” – there are several places wherein the characters even hack on philosophy/philosophers. If you don’t have thick skin, stay the hell home. Philosophers are used to twisting words at each other and critiquing everything. We can take it – can you?
All of this aside, I really enjoyed the theme of the novel. I enjoyed the setting, the characters, and the storyline. I enjoyed the writing above all. Barbery is so dang witty, she had me laughing aloud at several points. I knew this was a five star novel because I was actually jotting down quotes. I cannot stop myself from sharing them here!
Ripping on phenomenology (which I, too, dislike) the main character says (pg. 63):
But enough of phenomenology: it is nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness, a hard-core autism that no real cat would ever importune.
…..and another reason I adore this novel is because of the plethora of animal characters. Barbery also understands animals – really understands them (not like yuppies understand anything). And I am an absolute sucker for animals.
On page 92, the young character says this considering her father’s morning breakfasting ritual. She concludes her thesis a few pages later:
In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.
What do we do in the morning? Papa reads his paper while he drinks his coffee, Maman drinks her coffee while she leafs through catalogues, Colombe drinks her coffee while she listens to France Inter and I drink hot chocolate while reading mangas. Just now I’m reading Taniguchi mangas; he’s a genius, and he’s teaching me a lot about people.
And another witty and fun quote is from the main character on page 220:
What toilet paper does for people’s derrieres contributes considerably more to the abyss between the classes than a good many external signs.
Now, although as you read the novel, you may feel it is really just a false setting/personae dramatis so that the author can make bold assertions. It can be accused of that – and I am okay with it. But there is a deeper theme: that of meaning of life, of Fate, and of Beauty. And if you don’t pick up on these threads, heaven help us, you will be writing a negative review soon after finishing the novel. The novel has a somewhat “tragic” ending – but a good tragic. I do not want to give anything away, but know that the ending is both happy and unhappy. It’s actually a pretty good ending – that you should see coming a few chapters beforehand.
And beyond all that I have already said here: do not take this novel too seriously. I mean it. If you do, you are guilty of falling prey to the typical French trickery. Just like with the Italians, there is emotion and content and bold assertion: but we are still going to finish our bread and tea and smile like goofy children at the end of it. WASPs really aren’t gonna like this novel. Don’t take this too seriously. For your own sake.
Reading this novel has decided that this year will be the year of French. (Last year was the year of Russian.) I will, obviously, still continue the Russian path, but I really love the French and their constant wrangling and defining of social classes, politics, and society. Vive la France!