The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, New York, 2008
I decided to read this book after noticing some recommendations from bloggers I trust. The translation is wonderful, the language crisp and sharp.
In many ways the book is a delight. The novel is character driven, and Barbery has taken great care letting her readers into the thoughts of her protagonists.
There is Renee Michel, a fifty-four year old widow and concierge of a fine apartment building on the rue de Grenelle in Paris. The tenets are wealthy and upper class (or at least purport to be so). Renee takes a disparaging view of most of them, hides her intelligence behind sluggish, self-denigrating behavior and shares tea and pastries with her only friend, Manuela.
“Unbeknownst to all I learned to read. When the teacher was still droning away with the letters of the alphabet to my classmates, I had already been long acquainted with the solidarity that weaves written signs together, the infinite combinations and marvelous sounds that dubbed me a dame in this place, on the first day, when she had said my name. No one knew. I read as if deranged, at first in hiding and then, once it seemed to me that the normal amount of time to learn one’s letters had elapsed, out in the open for all to see, but I was careful to conceal the pleasure and interest that reading afforded me.” from page 45
Then there is Paloma, twelve years old and filled with all the qualms normal for a young person entering adolescence as well as a sharp wit and a terrible sadness. She is also very smart.
Personally I think grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well- turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language…I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs..from page 158
These two share their thoughts with us in ways that are personal, perceptive and at times, very funny. They eventually become friends and, through the introduction of a new tenent, Kakuro Ozu, their lives are changed.
As I said, in many ways the book is a delight, smart, funny and heartbreaking, but there is something about it that doesn’t sit right with me, it feels a bit gimmicky. Perhaps it feels different that way because it is in translation and I would love to hear from someone who read it in the original French.