The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
translated from French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, 2008
336 pages (paperback)
Which is the real me—the me I think I am or the me others think I am, the story I tell myself or the story/stories others tell about me? How can I know, since it is not possible for me to step outside of myself long enough to negotiate between those stories and, say, plot them on a Venn Diagram? At what point do the stories I overhear (or perhaps only assume) others tell about me replace or flow into the story I tell myself about myself?
Such complexities of personal identity writhe at the center of French novelist Muriel Barbery’s 2006 L’Élégance du hérisson, translated into English by Alison Anderson as The Elegance of the Hedgehog. An unlikely but fascinating duo of first-person narrators introduces the reader to the residents of an upscale apartment building. Renee, the middle-aged concierge, speaks only when spoken to, blares her television, and is seen coming home from the market with her peasant vegetables; but she surreptitiously reads Marx and Husserl, studies art films, and feeds the cabbage to her cat. Because the residents expect her to be uneducated and unrefined, they never see through her ruse, which both intrigues and infuriates her. At the same time, Paloma, a bright, twelve-year-old penthouse resident with everything at her disposal but nothing to value, has decided to burn down her apartment and kill herself on her next birthday. To amuse herself until then, she keeps two journals, one she calls her book of “Profound Thoughts” and the other a “Journal of the Movement of the World.” These journals are full of her observations about people, mostly her family and the other residents, and absolute declarations regarding life and death of which she believes she has convinced herself. While her parents plan high society dinner parties, in the next room she cheerfully lays her arson plans.
But Renee and Paloma are not the only “victims” of assumption. A passage in which Renee describes her closest friend and fellow building employee Manuela is representative of both her sharp-eyed perspective as a narrator as well as the author’s beautiful use of language:
Just as I am a permanent traitor to my archetype, so is Manuela: to the Portuguese cleaning woman she is a felon oblivious of her condition. This girl from Faro, born under a fig tree after seven siblings and before six more, forced in childhood to work the fields and scarcely out of it to marry a mason and take the road of exile, mother of four children who are French by birthright but whom society looks upon as thoroughly Portuguese—this girl from Faro, as I was saying, who wears the requisite black support stockings and a kerchief on her head, is an aristocrat. An authentic one, of the kind whose entitlement you cannot contest: it is etched onto her very heart, it mocks titles and people with handles to their names. What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.
On Sundays, the vulgarity of her in-laws, who with their loud laughter muffle the pain of being born weak and without prospects; the vulgarity of an environment as bleakly desolate as the neon lights of the factory where the men go each morning, like sinners returning to hell; then the vulgarity of her employers who, for all their money, cannot hide their own baseness and who speak to her the way they would a mangy dog covered with oozing bald patches. But you should have witnessed Manuela offering me, as if I were a queen, the fruit of her prowess in haute patisserie to fully appreciate the grace that inhabits this woman. Yes, as if I were a queen. When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic.
The residents miss the full and vibrant inner lives of these women—and that of the child upstairs—because they choose to see them as archetypes instead of individuals. But the rich snobs are not the only ones who put Renee in a box. When a new resident moves into the building and, seeing through Renee’s obstinate disguise, reaches out to share his own intellectual pursuits, Renee has a hard time accepting herself as worthy of his attention. Despite her good-natured condemnations of those to whom she is invisible, she too discounts her intelligence and characterizes herself an imposter in the new resident’s world. Though she knows it to be faulty and lacking and even ridiculous, some part of her has acquiesced to the narrative she believes the others have of her, has rewritten her narrative for comfort. And she muses: “I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.”
For much of the book, the two narrators tell distinct tales, but eventually Renee’s and Paloma’s narratives cross paths. And the reader’s expectations are shaken in the final pages with a sideswiping twist that reminds us that, whether or not we can discern our own narratives from the others swirling around us and indeed altering us, we are each distinct individuals who act both according to our characters and our changing circumstances. We owe it to ourselves to resist the assumptions and the archetypes and set trajectories for the people we want to be, regardless of who we (and others) may think we are.
This is a smart novel, cleverly conceptualized and beautifully translated. Because of its success in the English market, Barbery’s previous novel (published in French in 2000) was translated into English in 2009 as Gourmet Rhapsody, and is now on my TBR list.