The elegance of the Hedgehog

1+EleganceOfHedgehogI am currently reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French Novelist andProfessor of Philosophy Muriel Barbery. The story revolves mainly around the events in the life of a widow named Renee   Michel, who has worked as aConcierge in an upper-middle class Left Bank apartment building at 7 Rue de Grenelle – one of the most elegant streets in Paris for 27 years. The property  has been divided into eight luxury apartments, all occupied by distinctly bourgeois families, and also has a courtyard and private garden. Renée Michel eventually meets an unhappy but intellectually precocious girl named Paloma Josse who is the daughter of an upper-class family and also live in one of the luxury appartments at 7 Rue de Grenelle.

Renée is an autodidact in literature ad philosophy, but conceals it to keep her job and, she believes, to avoid the condemnation of the builing’s tenants. Likewise, she wants to be alone to avoid her tenants’ curiosity. She effects this by pretending to indulge in concierge-type food and low-quality television, while in her back room she actually enjoys high-quality food, listens to opera, and reads works by Leo Tolstoy and Edmund Husserl. Her perspective is that “to be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age”.

twelve-year-old Paloma meanwhile lives on the fifth floor with her parents and sister whom she considers snobs. A precocious girl, she hides her intelligence to avoid exclusion at school. Dismayed by the privileged people around her, she decides that life is meaningless, and that unless she can find something worth living for, beyond the “vacuousness of bourgeois existence”, she decides to  commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.Planning to burn down the apartment before dying, she also steals her mother’s pills. For the time being she journals her observations of the outside world, including her perceptions of Renée.Paloma is the only tenant who suspects Renée’s refinement, and for most of the novel, the two “cross each other but don’t see each other” and Although they share interests in philosophy and literature, nothing happens between them until a tragedy brings them together. A cultured Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu, whom Renée and Paloma befriend, then takes a room in the same apartment building. Ozu comes to share Paloma’s fascination with Renée: that the concierge has the “same simple refinement as the hedgehog”

Featuring a number of erudite characters, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is full of allusions to literary works, music, films, and paintings. It incorporates themes relating to philosophy,class consciousness, and personal conflict. The events and ideas of the novel are presented through the thoughts and reactions, interleaved throughout the novel, of two narrators, Renée and Paloma. The changes of narrator are marked by switches of typeface. In the case of Paloma, the narration takes the form of her written journal entries and other philosophical reflections; Renée’s story is also told in the first person but more novelistically and in the present tense.

 

 

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