Muriel Barbery (2008) – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

French intellectuals seem to have this problem.  They want to be ethereal beings who subsist on a diet of pure philosophy floating high above hoi polloi who eat regular food, get headaches, and enjoy American films.  Your stereotypical French intellectual identifies strongly with the socio-political aspirations of the poor and oppressed peoples of the world and is always ready for a socialist rally or a work stoppage.  However, the closer the poor and oppressed peoples get, the more tenuous becomes the identification.  By the time they are physically present in the immediate neighborhood, the identification disappears to be replaced with disdain.  Case in point: the concierge.  Enter, Renée Michel.


Mme. Michel is a paradox, an intellectual concierge.  As Barbery imagines it, Renée’s situation is fraught with both gentle humor and pointed irony.  In order to maintain her position, Renée takes great pains to disguise her thoughtfulness and erudition.  She feeds her cat traditional working-class French cooking while she dines on more sophisticated dishes.  She keeps a television on in the front of her apartment while she listens to classical music or reads quietly in the back. 


Ah, the problems of being a closet intellectual.  A woman sensitive to the fine points of French prosody, offended by the grammatical failings of her “betters,” she intentionally speaks ungrammatically in order to draw attention away from the extent of her knowledge.  When Dr. Chabrot reports that Mr. Arthens is suddenly dying and can be expected to live forty-eight hours or less, she asks [French edition, p.85]:


            — C’est un espèce d’infarctus?  [original italics]


[English edition, p.82, Translated as “Some sorta heart attack, huh?”]  The English version is informal, but arguably not ungrammatical.  The French version is more nuanced.  The grammatical error is in the gender of the indefinite article, which should be feminine une to agree with espèce rather than un, which I suppose might be an ungrammatical anticipation of the masculine noun infarctus.  In any case, infarctus might better in this context be translated by its English cognate, infarction, or by coronary, rather than heart attack, which corresponds to the more common phrase crise de coeur.  Maybe a better translation would be:


            “It’s a infarction?”


which captures the odd juxtaposition of ungrammaticality with medical jargon.


The above is an example of the kind of difficulties translation of this book poses.  It was enjoyable to read the book in English, but it was a treat to read it in French.  The parallel constructions are just a bit more parallel, the text flows more smoothly, and oddly enough—for the French pride themselves on the precision of their language—certain words that force the translator to choose among multiple senses in English allow the French author to express ideas with broader scope and delicious ambiguities in a way the translation doesn’t capture.  It’s not that there are things English can’t express; it’s that a deft wordsmith like Barbery interweaves meaning, implication, emotion, attitude, class, mood, etc. in such a way that translation to another language is bound to lose or misrepresent some of what is in the original, or alternatively to lose concision.


That said, the book seems to succeed in both languages; although I found the English version felt a bit tedious until the introduction of Mr. Ozu.



I’m generally up for a bit of philosophizing in my reading, but the section on Husserl and phenomenology made my eyes cross over in my head.  I’m glad there wasn’t a test at the end of the hour.  I felt the same way about William of Occam. 



For me, the most remarkable passage in the book is the description of Renée’s discovery of herself (p.43)


There was very little conversation in my family.  The children shrieked and the adults went about their business just as they would have had they been alone….  [W]e were not mistreated….  But we did not speak….


 [A]t the age of five, going to school for the first time, I was both astonished and frightened to hear a voice speaking to me and saying my name.


“Renée?” asked the voice, and I felt a friendly hand on mine….


 “Renée?”  I heard again… the voice above me….


Renée.  That meant me.  For the first time, someone was talking to me, saying my name.  Where my parents… merely gestured or grunted, here was a woman… finding her way into my heart, saying my name, entering with me into a closeness I had not previously known existed.


If Barbery made this up out of thin air, I am blown away.  If she experienced it herself, I am still blown away.  And if someone who experienced something similar shared the experience with her, and she just had the good sense to work it into the novel, I am still deeply impressed.


I was also impressed by the psychological plausibility of Renée’s psyche as formed by the experience of what happened to her sister.  From that experience, Renée drew and internalized certain convictions about how it was necessary (for her) to live—or more to the point, to survive.  Such convictions, generally arrived at during early adolescence, color a person’s entire life.  It is only under extraordinary circumstances that such convictions are ever challenged, let alone reconsidered, let alone discarded.  It is, or should be in my opinion, the goal of psychotherapy to create such extraordinary circumstances—circumstances that allow one to turn one’s attention with a critical eye upon the fundamental assumptions underlying all of one’s thoughts and actions in the world.  And these circumstances are exactly what Renée’s burgeoning relationship with Mr. Ozu creates.  When he tells her, “You are not your sister,” she suddenly sees that what she has taken for granted as obviously true—that the way to avoid her sister’s fate, the best way to live, is to shun all but the most superficial and formalized relationships—is, in fact, just plain false.  Such self-discovery is surely worth choking on thirty euros worth of sushi.  It is clear that Mr. Ozu would agree.



The book, and the characters in it, are not at their best in the satirical episodes devoted to carping and the ridicule of others; although I do recognize the irony of a concierge looking down on the intellectual pretensions of the residents of her building in much the way she imagines (probably rightly so) that they look down on her.  But this is just to say that in contrast the book soars when it describes real, humane, human relationships.  The friendship between Manuela and Renée, their little tea parties and the enthusiasm with which Manuela throws herself into helping along Renée’s relationship with Mr. Ozu is sincere and deep.  Renée’s concern for the spaced-out Paul Arthens is real and believable.  The history of Renée’s courtship and marriage and of the death of her husband is believable and touching.  The development of her relationship with Paloma, who finds her out, is also nicely drawn.


Renée’s encounters with Mr. Ozu are a pleasure to read.  Barbery shows us the development of their relationship from tentative and uncertain beginnings to a more solid relationship of openness, sharing, and unselfconsciousness.  Some of the stops along the way are priceless.  The extended episode of Renée’s need to relieve her bladder early in her first visit with Mr. Ozu is on re-reading, absolutely hilarious.  The first time through, I didn’t understand the significance of the buttons with one, two, and three lotuses, but eventually I remembered the admonishment our (American) hostess gave my wife and me when we stayed at her home in the Loire Valley: “Water conservation is important here,” she explained, gesturing at the commode.  “A short push for a small flush; a long push for a large flush.”  I can’t recall any other time since toilet training when I have been instructed in proper toilet-flushing techniques.  Be that as it may, the description of the events following Renée’s choice of the two-lotus button is a tour-de-force.


[S]omething dreadful happens.


A monstrous racket assails my ears, practically striking me down on the spot…. 


Did I press the wrong button, misjudging the amount produced—such presumptuousness, such pride, Renée, two lotus flowers for such a ridiculous contribution—and consequently I am being punished by the earsplitting thunder of divine justice?…  Have my lumpen manual laborer’s fingers, succumbing to the effect of some unconscious wrath, abused the subtle mechanism of the lotus button, thereby unleashing a cataclysm in the plumbing that threatens the entire fourth floor with seismic collapse?…


I am convinced I have gone mad, or have arrived in heaven, because the unholy racket, indistinguishable thus far, now becomes clearer and, unthinkably, sounds not unlike Mozart.


Sounds, in fact, like the Confutatis in Mozart’s Requiem.


Confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis!

[The evildoers seized, thrown in the burning flames!]


I am hearing beautiful…. voices.


I have gone mad.


“Madame Michel, is everything all right?” asks a voice from behind the door, it is Mr. Ozu’s voice, or, more likely, that of Saint Peter at the gates of Purgatory.


Emerging from the bathroom (the Great Convenience Place, the Japanese call it, actually), Renée is truly stupefied.


“I…” I say to Mr. Ozu, for there is no one else here, “I… well…  You know, the Requiem


I should have named my cat Badsyntax.


The author was really having fun when she wrote this, and so was I when I read it.  And full points to the translator here!  The French has the cat’s should-be name as Padsyntax, which sounds like pas de syntax (absence of syntax).  “Bad syntax” is a really apt choice of translation.



I see that I haven’t said anything at all about Paloma.  I didn’t like her at first.  She seems a bit bratty and taken with herself.  She finally comes into her own, for me at least, when she acquires a bit of control over her sister Colombe, faces down her mother’s psychiatrist, and begins a relationship with Mme. Michel.  Overall, Paloma is somewhat less successful as a character than Renée.  Still, Paloma is interesting in that she is able to reveal her closet intellectualism relatively easily to Renée.  And I’m glad Paloma ultimately gets off her suicide kick.  Barbery made me care at least that much.  When you find you care about the characters, you know the author has done a good job.


I leave it to others to gloss Mr. Ozu, who is a breath of fresh air and possibly too good to be true.  Nevertheless, I liked him.



I was, frankly, disappointed by the ending.  It’s surprising—shocking, even—but I don’t think it was necessary for Renée to get run over by the dry-cleaner’s truck.  Here’s how I figure that.  At the end of a story, it’s satisfying to have possibilities—the more, the better.  With rich characters like these, there are lots of ways to imagine their futures, and that, I think, is part of the enjoyment of fully-drawn characters.  The author’s job is to bring them through a climactic event and tie together some threads in their lives while leaving other threads for us to wonder about after we close the book.  When Rhett Butler tells Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” and just walks away down the stairs, the book ends, the movie ends, but we can enjoy speculating about what they do after that.  Just because the author has the power to kill off anyone she wants doesn’t absolve her of the responsibility to use that power to good effect.  It doesn’t make sense for Medea, Jason and the kids to go to the seashore at the end of the play, or for Cordelia to survive to marry Edgar at the end of King Lear (it was played that way at times in the nineteenth century, believe it or not), but, dammit, Renée deserved better.

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