“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.” The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Reneé Michel and Paloma Josse live very different lives. Reneé is a poor concierge alone in the world apart from her cat Leo and her friend Manuela. Paloma is the teenage daughter of bored, bourgeois parents who plans to kill herself before her thirteenth birthday. Both are fiercely intelligent and determined to hide it from the world at all costs and manage to do so until a stranger moves into the apartment blocks and their worlds begin to change.
It’s not difficult to see why The Elegance of The Hedgehog has received such wide acclaim and been translated into so many languages. The parallel narratives of Reneé and Paloma are quietly compelling, the characterisation is fresh and the story is darkly hilarious. Written by a professor of philosophy it contains the best summary of phenomenology that I have ever read (“nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness, a hard-core autism that no real cat would ever importune.”) and for all the main characters’ intellectual status, they retain a warmth and humanity that sets them apart from the intellectual snobbery and false superiority of the social elite that surrounds them.
It would make a great read at any time, but an especially wonderful read if you’re visiting Paris.
I read this a few years ago when it first came out — it was “le grand hit” at the time. I remember that I enjoyed it, but it is very typical of modern French literature in that you always finish them feeling really emotionally drained. I guess it’s cowardice but I have stopped reading this type of book since I left France — when I was a teenager or in my early twenties I would rush for the latest Folio publications and devour them, in fact all my salary and/or pocket money used to go on books. Now I’m living in Australia where they are so expensive, I don’t want to buy books at 15-20 pounds apiece and come out of it feeling like killing myself… cowardice and avariciousness!!
Did you read it in French?! You might be my new hero if you did. I like that French fiction is distinctive, like French films. Language aside, the main difference seems to be films are quirkier and more charming. Maybe they have to balance the cultural scales out with slightly maudlin fiction? Can you recommend any that I could follow up with? It might be a mistake for me to form cultural assumptions on the back of a single book…
I did read it in French, as from 5 to 19 English-language books were a valuable commodity and French was the default setting. I read some really terrible translations of English classics in French, in fact — I’ve never read Shakespeare in English, and I read a lot of Oscar Wilde in French, shameful really.
Recommendations… Hmm. I used to be utterly obsessed with Amelie Nothomb’s books, until I’d read so many of them (ie. all of them) and her tropes were too repetitive for me. I will have a think about books similar to this one and get back to you — as I said, it’s been 6 or 7 years since I was a regular reader of French novels so I need to stir up my memory a little!
I actually recently read an article in I think the New Yorker about how miserable the French love to be, actually…
I don’t think you’re allowed to say shamefully when you’re reading bilingually, it’s too cool to say shamefully 🙂
Ahaha I loved this little quiz I just came across whilst checking out what’s new in French literature (inspired by the above) and thought it was so perfectly summarised:
“Do you think contemporary French literature is influential globally?”
– No, it’s a franco-french fantasy
– No, its influence is very limited
– Yes, France has many authors who are enjoyed throughout the world
– Yes, but far less than there used to be.
LOVE IT. Ohhh France… it’s kind of a weird culture to me as it was my identity throughout my childhood and teens but then stopped and became something I struggle to relate to now. I’m nostalgic for a France that’s kind of long gone — one where Orangina still came in glass bottles and was purchased for 2 francs as opposed to 2 euros…
I can’t speak to France but I lament the effect of inflation on my childhood treats here as well. And have a constant suspicion that everything is getting smaller…