Archive for April, 2013

Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


Redemption. What does it take to redeem a book, or a life? Page after page and day after day of struggle, either searching for or talking and writing about meaning and beauty, but failing to find it. Can 10 beautiful pages justify the previous 300? Can an ending, or our ending,  redeem what came before? Can the long view of hindsight outweigh the page by page reading experience, or the moment by moment day by day experience of living ?
Perhaps it can. Most bookgroupers were very positive about the hedgehog. Two of us were not. We complained loudly that it droned on, took too long to get to the point, and could have started half way through, etc. Whilst the enthusiasts agreed it took a while to get going, they felt it was more than worth it. Fascinatingly though, the negative among us had not finished the book, while the positive had.
So the positives were reviewing the book in hindsight, post the emotional, but redemptive ending. In contrast, we negatives were still in the tortured moment, without the benefit of looking back and weighing the sum of our frustrations and insight.
I will focus more on the positives and negatives of the book later.
It’s an open question whether the positive bookgroupers would have been negative if asked before the ending. As a negative that subsequently completed the book I find myself agnostic. I would like to believe in the redeemer, to acknowledge i could not have found meaning in the end without all the pain of the journey, but I cannot. i find myself with residual resentment. All those pages of pain and frustration could have been spent doing something else. Did I really have to go through them for the heartfelt beauty of the ending?
Perhaps not. Perhaps Renee’s life of hidden intellectualism was a sad waste, un-redeemed by a few weeks of companionship at the end? The problem is that it is hard to deny that her life was not redeemed by her impact on Paloma.
Is that it? The point is not to weigh the sum of our pain and pleasure and ask whether at the end, in hindsight, will I be in the red or black, but rather is anyone else better off because of me? Not have I been saved, but has anyone else?
The trouble is Renee can never know whether Paloma was saved or not. So whilst the fate of Paloma may be a redemption for us as readers of the hedgehog, it may not be for us as people, because we can never know the impacts we have on those around us, the readers of our lives.
Still undecided about the hedgehog? Here is some more on the positives and negatives.
For the negative bookgroupers the big issue was that three quarters of the book is the setup. The action and plot only start after this lengthy introduction. Not only was the introduction too long, it was also too hard to swallow for us negatives, though not for the majority of bookgroupers i should say.
Our two protagonists are a super intelligent 12 year old bent on suicide, and a concierge, building caretaker, hiding her true enlightened cultured nature from the upper class residents of a Paris  apartment block. I found them both annoying. Firstly, the kid is a black hole of negativity, although perhaps many of us were as teenagers. Secondly, the premise of the concierge hiding her true self, well it had me baffled throughout. I never understood the point of it as she never had a reason, or reward, for doing it.
Within this, one way of expressing what annoyed me was their lack of generosity. Both characters were constantly banging on about bad grammar for example. I’m not sure I believe someone can be considered some sort of elevated soul just because they are really keen on art and beauty for their own sake, if at the same time they are still accusatory and dismissive of everyone around them.
Yet the author appears to want us to believe her two protagonists are a higher caste than the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle. This lack of generosity and constant judgement, illustrated by their obsession with grammar, however, suggests they might just be pretentious elitists trying to tell themselves they are better than everyone else by claiming they are super sensitive and knowledgeable about Art and Beauty. In short, they seem to be great examples of exactly the kind of fakery and self deception they are critiquing in the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle.
This set-up also seems very old fashioned and hypocritical. Why make a big fuss over the idea that a concierge could be intelligent? It is extremely patronising. It is the kind of thing you might expect to read in a romantic nineteenth century novel. It implies a multitude of nineteenth century romantic ideas on the part of the author, such as: the nature of the members of each class is different and fixed; both the lumpen proletariat and bourgeois are obnoxious, only the sensitive artistic soul is important; the normal laws of behaviour don’t apply to exceptional sensitive artistic souls who see so much more in the world than others.  In this sense the hedgehog is a pre-modern novel.
After pages and pages of this i felt like  both protagonists deserved to get their comeuppance for their obnoxious ungenerous reverse snobbery.
On the  positive side it is a very intelligent book. There are lots of lectures on art and philosophy, lots of sharp social observation and criticism.  Many book groupers found it to be well written, even though we were reading it in translation. They also found the characters engaging and the set-up interesting rather than frustrating.
Even for we negatives there were some delightful moments, particularly towards the end. For example, when the hero of the book, Monsiuer Ozu, discovers her secret he says to Renee what i had been wanting to say to her all along – ‘its the twenty first century for goodness sake’. This was great moment and credit to the author she gave Renee’s character no answer. Similarly towards the end, Renee christens Paloma the ‘Judge of Humanity’. This very neatly captured what had been annoying me so much about Paloma throughout.
These two moments were a great relief because they revealed, after three quarters of the book, that the author was aware of the flaw in these characters. It revealed that these  flaws had been deliberately created to make a point, and that the characters were not just simply speaking for the author.
On the whole it was a very worthwhile read and most people will love it. If you find the start slow, as i did, skip to the half way mark and carry on from there. It is definitely worth reading from there to the end.

This fantastic book site has a lot more stuff about it.


April 27, 2013 at 6:41 am 2 comments


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