“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.
In 1785, a young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is tasked with purifying the cemetery of Les Innocents off the Rue St Denis in Paris. The ground is so full of corpses that plants no longer grow, the bodies s no longer rot and the air is thick with the scent of putrefying human flesh, a scent which taints the breath of those who live nearby. The mass graves which in heavy rain have burst into the cellars of neighbouring homes will need to be exhumed, and the King’s Minister has tasked him with dismantling the Church.
Of course, Barrate’s task will not be easy. Though it has been closed for five years, the Church is an icon to the residents who live around it; their family members and friends are buried in the grounds and of course such a scheme is met with some strong opposition. Others, see the potential benefits of the scheme, but this is problematic too, as more zealous supporters see the cleansing as a symbol of the way forward, and revolutionary messages begin popping up all over Paris.
Pure by Andrew Miller won the 2011 Costa Book of The Year. I enjoyed it well enough, but it felt weirdly restrained and was a little unsatisfactory as a result. I think that this might have been because I expected more from it. With all the hints at revolution and the course of the future, I was waiting for something truly revolutionary to happen but it didn’t. At times it was sad and horrible, but this seemed to be brushed away and treated as incidental. It was a pity, because the concept had so much potential and despite all the death and dismemberment, it felt a little bland.
The characterisation was restricted too. The entire novel wasted time focussing on Barrate’s self doubt- which came to little- and Armand’s subversiveness- which came to nothing. The more interesting characters were briefly outlined but not developed. I would have liked a more expansive treatment of the fates of Jeanne or Ziguette, it felt like they were just brushed under the carpet to focus on the anticlimactic ending of the novel in which Barrate (who was too indecisive and insipid for me to believe he was an ambitious man who’d raised himself from poverty) improbably rides off into the sunset with Heloise (who seemed to have more going for her than that).
Have you read Pure by Andrew Miller? What did you think?
A colleague in work had to go to Paris for a conference recently and was asking for suggestions of things to do in her free time. I mentioned that she should visit Shakespeare & Co. which is across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral.
I visited Paris a few times on school trips, and remember seeing the books lined up on tables outside the shop. But being on a school trip, we were quickly bustled to the Cathedral and I never had a chance to go inside. I’ve been planning to save up for a weekend trip to Paris, to visit the store and see the sights, for a long time now.
Overhearing this, another colleague offered to lend me her copy of Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian writer who fled to Paris after receiving a death threat from a thief he’d upset by revealing his name in a true crime novel. Almost penniless he took refuge at Shakespeare & Company, then run by the remarkable George Whitman, who allowed writers, poets and artists to stay in his shop free of charge while they worked on their projects and got back on their feet. In a world obsessed with money, George managed to distance himself from the drive to acquire, using his cash to feed and home relative strangers. The maxim of his store being, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”
The book is a portrait of a remarkable bookshop, its remarkable inhabitants, but most of all of the remarkable man who ran it. A great read which really does make you think. I read sections of it aloud to my boyfriend (who hates being read to) and even he was interested in the philosophy of the shop. My favourite quote from the book (except the one that compares self publishing to using prostitutes in unfavourable terms):
From wikipedia- sadly I can’t properly reference the Flickr account it came from as the wiki link is dead. Let me know if this is your image!
“’People all tell me that they work too much, that they need to make more money,’ George told me. ‘What’s the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn’t make any sense.’” Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs Jeremy Mercer