reading my way through every country in the world…

#20 France – A thing of beauty

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barberry (trans. Alison Anderson)
Gallic Books, 2008

General reading value: 5 /5
Armchair travel value: 2/5

Fly-by summary: Two reclusive people who have always put head before heart find the beauty that comes with doing the opposite.

Why this book? A friend recommended it to me (thanks Mel!) after I was waxing lyrical about the stunning wordplay used in another book (Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch 22) – for the reason that this novel is also exceptionally beautifully written.

Take the full tour: There is a scene in the movie American Beauty when the character Ricky Fitts describes how he watched a plastic bag floating and moving through the air and he was struck by the conclusion that “there is a life behind things”. He says:

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in”

Much the same conclusion is reached by the two narrators of this book – the first, a poor, widowed 54-year-old concierge named Renee Michel who works and resides in a wealthy apartment building, also inhabited by the second narrator, a 12-year-old precociously intelligent, suicidally inclined girl named Paloma Josse.

Renee is a fraud in the sense that she self-admittedly defies all the stereotypes and expectations of a concierge. Despite setting up the semblance of that stereotype through her overt actions and conversations, she is, in fact, a woman who envelopes herself in books, art and other mediums of culture and spends her non-working hours pondering ideas, musing on philosophical meditations and making astute and often ascerbic observations of those around her. Renee’s life has been tragic which perhaps explains why she is actively anti-social and certainly bitter – at least for the first part of the book.

Paloma is also certainly not your typical happy-go-lucky pre-teen. Quite the opposite. Having come to the conclusion that life is so absurd that it is meaningless, she declares in the beginning of the novel that she intends on killing herself on her thirteenth birthday in a rather spectacular fashion. Until then, however, she commits herself to the task of producing “the greatest number of profound thoughts” which she intends to write in the Japanese poetry style of haiku (three lines) or tanka (five lines). As an example:



Military Service

Much of the first part of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is rather plotless as Barberry sets about introducing these characters through their interweaving narratives. Neither character is particularly likeable and each could easily be symbolised by a hedgehog – an animal who denies access to the core of themselves by other animals by exposing a spiky, impenetrable exterior.

Picture source

Picture source

I would perhaps prefer to draw on another symbol of the book, however, to describe these characters which is the camellia and to say that at the beginning of the novel both Renee and Paloma are like a withered flower and a tightly closed bud, respectively. The introduction of new resident Kakuro Ozu to their apartment building and their lives, however, proves to give Renee the love and care necessary to bloom again and Paloma the attention and nurturing to open up for the first time.

To give away too much more of the plot would ruin the novel and particularly its breathtaking ending which caught me, suprisedly, completely unaware.

This is a novel much less concerned about plot than about ideas – something which I recently learned is a key feature of French literature. Indeed, had it not been that I listened to the fabulous The Guardian Books podcast on French literature shortly after reading this book, my review may have been less complimentary. At times, I found the extremely pointed class consciousness Barberry communicates through Renee to be so sour that Renee’s thoughts almost leap off the page and sting you in the eye. Renee holds her wealthy charges in complete and utter contempt (apart from Kakuro and Paloma) and portrays them all as caricature-like as if to suggest that wealth immediately equates to stupidity.

Likewise, at times I felt the book was a mere collection of ideas and thoughts on topics ranging from Japanese interior design to Eminem’s Lose Yourself, to the purpose of Literature and Art to whether writing a university thesis is a waste of time, and with very little linking these thoughts together. It was rather like reading a series of columns or essays by two very opinionated and not overly objective commentators.

In The Guardian podcast, however, a French book editor named Olivia (whose surname I didn’t quite catch from the recording), says: “there is something French about protesting and expressing an opinion. Protest is characteristic of our people…(p)eople want to express their point of view”. Thank you Olivia! This went so far in helping me to appreciate this book and understand why it is not only so full of ideas, opinions and, yes, protests, but also the purposes this can serve.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the deepest of the profound thoughts that both Paloma and Renee have, and the ones that give them uncharacteristic joy, are those about the beauty that can be find in life. Paloma, for example, muses that:

“Maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same…”.

Reading this was what brought to mind Ricky Fitts and his plastic bag and also made me wonder just how many moments of sheer beauty pass us by, without the meta-awareness that only comes from behaving like a hedgehog and closing oneself off to others in order to truly ruminate in peace.

This book provoked myriad responses in me from anger to incredulity to sheer sadness to unbridled awe. It has to be read and re-read again, discussed with friends, dissected and questioned.

In this book, Renee states that she judges all texts she reads by “The Cherry Plum test”. I won’t spoil the joy of discovering what this test encompasses by explaining it here but all I will say is that The Elegance of the Hedgehog would pass my cherry plum test any day of the week.

We say Au Revoir to France and Chao to Vietnam where next post I will be discussing The Things They Carried.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on France…

Capital: Paris


Area: 674,843 km2

Language: French

Religion: secular but Roman Catholicism most widely practised.

Currency: Euro

Delay your stay: Life – A User’s Manual by Georges Perec; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; Atomised by Michel Houllebecq; Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust; Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens

2 Responses to “#20 France – A thing of beauty”

  1. Alex says:

    “made me wonder just how many moments of sheer beauty pass us by…”

    That’s what Saramago calls the difference between looking, seeing and noticing. I felt that Ozu (the proverbial strange into town) was really a turning point in the way both of them appreciated beauty. Who better than a Japanese to appreciate beauty? :)

  2. Alex says:

    Hello! Did Saramago say that in Blindness? I am planning on reading one of his books when I get to Portugal and given the numerous times people have referred to him when talking to me, I expect I will love his work. I completely agree that the turning point comes when Kakuro arrives – not only for the characters but for the reader as well as I had been feeling a bit half-hearted about this book but he was so fascinating and the changes he causes to Renee, in particular, so marked that I really started to connect for the first time with the book. I also loved discovering the Japanese word “wabi” meaning “an understated form of beauty, a quality of refinement masked by rustic simplicity”. Such a perfect word to apply to so many things. I’m off now to see if you have also reviewed this book and see what you thought of it!

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