When I was 23, I brought a copy of Ulysses with me to Greece and carried it around for five weeks. I never actually got around to reading it, but carrying it with me made me feel a cut above my fellow backpackers, most of whom were toting copies of Catch-22, Siddhartha, and The Hobbit. All good books, definitely. But for sheer difficulty, I’ll still put James Joyce in the top 10, if there is one.
My point is that there are books we read because they make us feel smarter. They are not necessarily the books we read for pleasure.
Muriel Barbery’s 2006 publishing phenomenon (it has sold more than two million copies and been translated into 40 languages) is an amalgam of both. Its references to phenomenology, Japanese art-house films, and the works of the Dutch masters flatter the reader while the surprising and insightful observations that appear on every page surprise and please us. Barbery’s genius is to have put these pronouncements into the mouths of two very unlikely narrators: a squat, middle-aged, rather ugly concierge of a Paris apartment, and a precociously literate 12-going-on-thirteen-year-old girl.
Renée Michel, the concierge, is 54 years old. She has been a widow for 15 years and for the past 27 she’s been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle. All her life she’s been poor, plain, and of no consequence. The people she works for, the wealthy inhabitants of this hôtel particulier, pay her no more attention than they would any other hireling. She exists to keep the townhouse clean, take messages, answer the door. The idea that she might have an interior life, especially one that is complex, sensitive, and astute, is scandalous.
But Madam Michel has a profound inner life. Lacking any formal education, she’s studied and read practically everything worth studying and reading. Her cat is named Leo after Tolstoy, her favourite author; she adores 17th century Dutch painting, Japanese art-house movies, and the music of Purcell and Mahler. She listens to opera, waxes ecstatic over Death in Venice, and has read enough of Edmund Husserl to conclude that phenomenology is a fraud – “nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness”. All of this, however, she keeps hidden from the other inhabitants of the building, who are, almost without exception, rich, superficial, and bourgeois in every sense of the word.
Hiding herself is not just important – it’s essential, as she sees it. Having never had reason to expect anything from the world, she wishes simply to be left to enjoy her books, her music, and her dark chocolate in peace. She opens up only to Manuela, the Portuguese cleaning woman, with whom, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she shares tea and conversation.
Barbery is not “just” a novelist, if there is such a thing – before quitting her job to write full time she was a philosophy professor. In an interview in 2007, shortly after the book came out, she said that in creating the character of Renée Michel she was “inspired by the idea of a reserved, cultured concierge who turned stereotypes on their head and at the same time created a compelling comic effect”. She does the same thing with the second narrator: Paloma, the youngest daughter of the Josses, who occupy the fifth floor of the building. Paloma is unlike almost any other 12-year-old you’re likely to meet. She shares many of Renée’s values, and harbours a deep disgust for the superficiality of those of her family. Her mother is conventional and useless, her sister is a “walking disaster”, and her neighbours are privileged snobs. She’s also like the concierge in that she, too, hides her real nature from those around her. If her parents and teachers knew how exceptionally gifted she really is, she “would never have a moment’s peace”.
Unable to see anything worthwhile in the life she is living, Paloma has decided to commit suicide on the 16th of June, the day she turns 13. She is quietly stealing her mother’s sleeping pills, one at a time. When the day comes she will use them to kill herself – after first setting fire to the apartment. In the meantime, she is keeping two diaries, one called “Journal of the Movement of the World” in which she records her observations of the world around her; the other is called “Profound Thoughts” in which she sets down her reflections on art, poetry, people and herself.
Profound Thought No. 9 provides us with the title of the book:
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, for the first half of the book, is really a series of philosophical essays. As a novel, it only comes into its own with the appearance of the delightful Kakuro Ozu, a wealthy, middle-aged businessman who moves into the building and forms a friendship with Renée. He sees in her the cultured, perceptive individual she is; in his company she comes out of her shell and thrills to fine Japanese cuisine while discussing, in no particular order, Yasujiro Ozu (a distant relation), Tolstoy, exile and the irreducibility of culture.
“For the first time in my life,” she tells herself, “I have made a friend.”
And yet. While Kakuro appears oblivious to their differences in social standing, Renée is all too aware of how it must seem to others. How ludicrous, that such a wealthy, refined, and successful gentleman would seek out the company of a servant. When he invites her to have dinner with him on his birthday, she turns him down. Paloma, who has witnessed this refusal, pushes her to explain herself. And so we learn about Lisette, Renée’s beautiful older sister, who had the temerity to demand more out of life, and was punished for it. The lesson she learned was: if you want to survive, keep your head down. Don’t fraternize with those who are not of your class.
Barbery suggests that society conspires to prevent us from ever really seeing other people: “We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors.” When Renée finally allows herself to be seen, to be recognized for the perceptive, unique individual she is, she experiences a level of happiness that borders on ecstasy. And Paloma, observing this transformation, finds a reason to go on living. Change is possible, after all, and there is beauty in this world.
If I were being hypercritical, I’d say that Barbery’s characters strain the limits of credibility. I can believe, to some extent, in a self-taught concierge who reads Proust; I find it more difficult to believe that an adolescent girl, even one as intelligent as Paloma, can be as familiar with 16th century poets as she is with manga, can discuss Vermeer and Racine and Japanese haikus, and regularly listens to Glenn Miller before setting off for school in the morning.
But novels are all about suspending disbelief, and once you do that, you can accept almost anything.