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Hedgehogs, Elegant and Otherwise

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When I was in high school, I went through a period of reading everything I could get by any living French writer I had ever heard of–on the unformed assumption, I think, that if I couldn’t get up and move to Paris right that minute, I could at least anticipate the move by living there in my head.

I was about fifteen at the time, and I hadn’t yet figured out what later because obvious.  Hemingway and the other expatriate Americans whose lives I envied hadn’t spent much time talking to the French.  They talked to each other.   They really didn’t talk to French writers.

I think it took another ten years before it occurred to me that there might be a reason for that.

At any rate, at the time, there was a set of more or less uniform paperback editions of Sartre’s works, including The Words, and Nausea and a collection of plays including No Exit.  In the collection of plays was one called The Respectful Prostitute, and it has the distinction of being the first work I ever read that I knew I was supposed to respect and simply did not, at all, no compromises.

I don’t mean I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like a lot of things, but in most of those cases I understood, instinctively, why what I didn’t like should still be considered “good,” in the sense of “done well.”

I didn’t like Thomas Hardy.  I could tell that his novels were done well.  I just didn’t want to be in the same room with them.

The Respectful Prostitute was not like that.  The problem was not that I didn’t like it, although I didn’t.  The problem was that it was rank, outright awful.

We’ve talked here, on and off, about whether we can say objectively if a book is good or bad.  The Respectful Prostitute is a play, and I’ve never seen it performed.  I also read it in translation, and translation can be either good or bad in itself.

In spite of all that, I feel perfectly confident in saying that the thing was awful.  It was Sartre’s attempt to “address” the racisim of the pre-Civil Rights era American South–it was written in 1946–and even at the age I was I knew that the man knew nothing about America, nothing about the South, nothing about race relations, and not a whole lot about how human beings actually responded to each other. 

The play does not fall flat.  It’s worse.  It seems to take place in some alternate universe where wooden automatons spout all the lines you’d expect them to if you’d read a tract on The Negro Problem, but none of the lines you’d expect them to if you’d ever met any people.

I have no idea if that’s clear.  The experience of reading that play was so cringingly awful that I can remember finishing it even today–remember where I was, what I was doing, everything.  It was my literary equivalent of the Kennedy assassination.

I am really not trying to imply here that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is bad in the way Sartre’s play is bad–it isn’t.  In fact, it’s a very good book, if by “good” I mean one that keeps me interested and makes me want to go back for more.  In fact, it even makes me want to check out Barbery’s first novel, which concerns the same apartment house and some of the same characters.

What the two works share, though, is this:  in both (all the time in the Sartre, on and off in the Barbery) it’s quite obvious that the writer is writing about people he or she does not know and does not understand.   Sartre’s play is bad because he didn’t understand any of the characters he thought he was writing about.  Barbery’s book is better–and often good–because she does understand most of them. 

But, a few preliminary notes:

1) My guess is that most of the people who read this blog would not consider this to actually be a novel at all, if they read it.  It’s not “literary” in the way that Ann Beattie or Michael Chabon is literary.  It doesn’t focus on adultery and campus politics. 

It is, however, also not a “story” in the sense people mean when they say “that book has a good story.”

It is told in the first person from two points of view:  Renee, a working-class but ferociously self-educated concierge in a high-end apartment house in Paris; and Paloma, a twelve year old girl in one of the families with an apartment in the building.

Things happen to these people, and to the people around them, but the point of view sections are both meant to be their diaries.  And, as with all diaries, they not only report events, but discourse on ideas.

And there are a lot of ideas.

2) This book spent over a year on the New York Times best seller list.  That’s a long time, even for the Times list, which is skewed in favor not only of independent bookstores but of a certain kind of independent bookstore. 

The writer is a professor of philosophy, and the book was supported by what sounds from the description like the French equivalent of the NEA.  

National Endowment for the Arts, not National Education Association.

So this is not only French literature, it is, in a way, Official French literature. 

That leaves me with some interesting questions.  Did this book do less well, commercially, in France than it did here? 

The point of the Endowments–whatever they’re called–is to support art the government thinks is good but that has trouble finding an audience or appeals only to minority taste.

Any book that spends a year on the Times list is definitely paying its own way. 

Maybe French readers like French novels less well than American readers do?  I don’t know.  It would be interesting to have an answer.

3) The story of Paloma, the twelve year old girl, is essentially Catcher in the Rye, except that where Holden Caufield wanted to go back to childhood, Paloma wants to kill herself after setting her family’s very expensive apartment on fire.

This is not a spoiler.  She announces her intentions to do this in her first point of view section.  She has, however, all of Holden’s ideas–the alienation from her family and school and friends; the conviction that adults are all phony and inauthentic.

Barbery, however, went considerably farther than Salinger ever did in making the family the locus of awful–this is a group of people so determinedly neurotic, the cat is on Prozac. 

4) The story of Renee, the concierge–fifty-something and ugly, child of a working class background with no real formal education–is where I found the problems with characters who just don’t ring true.

Oh, Renee herself rings true enough, although being an American I have trouble connecting to her situation in some ways.

Where the thing goes off the rails is when we meet Renee’s equally working class friend Manuela or when Renee talks about her people growing up.

I know that most people in the “knowledge professions” think that anybody who does manual or menial work must be downtrodded, alienated and emotionally numb, but I’ve got people like that in my family, and that’s not who they are. 

I kept wanting to shake Renee and go–oh, stop projecting. 

5) Renee and Paloma have one big thing in common, and that’s that they’re both trying to hide how smart they are.  Renee believes that if she allows the rich residents of the apartment building to know she reads philosophy and literature instead of watching television and behaving like a member of the proletariat, they will–well, I don’t know what they’ll do.  Maybe fire her.  It’s never made clear.

This is where I had trouble, because, at least in NY, nobody would think twice about the concierge reading Heidigger or the guy running the kiosk on the corner reading Proust. And they’d both probably be in night school getting a degree, anyway.

Paloma doesn’t want to let anybody know how smart she is because she doesn’t want the kind of pressure she thinks her family would put on her if they knew.   And that would be thoroughly believable, except–

6) If you’re going to make your character a super genius, you’ve got to be VERY careful.  I’ve got exactly one supergenius in the whole of the Gregor Demarkian series, and I’m very careful never to show him doing any of the things he’s supposed to be a genius in.

So much of this book is from Paloma’s point of view that Barbery doesn’t have the luxury of doing that. 

That means that we’re constantly privy to Paloma’s thoughts on everything from French food to world politics–and those ideas are, well, what can I say?

Not particularly original, for one thing.  Paloma has managed to come up with pretty much the same set of complaints and observations as dozens of adolescents I’ve known, including myself.

And there’d be nothing wrong with that–it’s actually all entertaining enough–if I wasn’t being encouraged to see Paloma as much more than this. 

Given what’s actually here in the book, what makes Paloma stand out is not her brilliance, but her calm embrace of sociopathology.

And I’m willing to bet almost anything that that is not the way the author intended me to think of Paloma’s plan to commit arson and suicide on September 16.

7) When I was looking through various reviews and reports of this book before I read it, I came across a delighted review of the audio edition saying that it was wonderful, most of the chapters that were little essays on philosophy had been cut out.

This made me nervous about the book in a number of ways, but I can now say the reviewer was wrong–you don’t want to give up the chapters oh philosophy.

At the beginning of the novel, Renee is reading Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, a book about how all we can know is the workings of our own consciousness, we cannot ever really tell that there is an outside world that exists–a sort of apotheosis of solipsism.

And all I could think was:  well, if you WANT to be depressed, go spend your afternoons with transcendental phenomenology.

I’ll spend mine with Jane Marple, and I’ll be fine.

But then, outside of a year or two in adolscence when I was striking poses, I’ve never been the alienated kind.

Good book, really, for all the complaints–and I will read Barbery’s other one.

Written by janeh

July 19th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Hedgehogs, Elegant and Otherwise'

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  1. Thanks for posting that. I was wondering whether I wanted to read this book, and you’ve made it sound interesting.


    20 Jul 11 at 9:58 am

  2. This has spoilers – Jane suggested I post it anway. I did read the first book – shorter and a quite fast read. But I hadn’t when I wrote this.

    On the assumption this is the book you were referring to, and not wanting to post spoilers, I’m emailing you now that I’ve finished it rather than posting to the blog.

    Yes, the end is startling, and both fits and doesn’t quite fit, unless it’s intended to rather heavily emphasize the idea of life as a something that finds its meaning in the fact that it ends, and that the only way to find meaning is to pursue moments of beauty.

    And the bit about the dishonoured daughter coming home to die, afflicting her sister – whose affliction is removed by a few words from a handsome rich man years later is straight out of a Harlequin romance!
    Well, maybe a gothic thriller – back when I last read Harlequins, the heroine was always in her 20s and generally had no family.

    I didn’t much like the book, and am trying to decide if I’ll read the first one.

    I don’t care for adolescents or coming-of-age books, and Paloma (what’s going on with the girls’ names, then, both meaning ‘pigeon’? A French naming fashion or some reference to spirit and the dove from above?) is a rather irritating specimen.

    I’m not at all sure she’s supposed to be a genius. She believes she’s a genius, but she’s also convinced she’s plumbed the depths of her parents and sister when all she’s done is named off their superficial characteristics. She’s not mature or smart enough to know that they might have depths beneath those. She doesn’t even realize how restricted her priviliged social circle is, although she reads and speculates about the riots in the banlieux.

    But Renee does the same thing. Her parents and birth family never seem to have uttered a syllable or even to have had personalities. They just have the superficial appearance of farm laborers, and she thinks that’s all there was. In a way, they’re peas in a pod, those two, hiding from others and from life.

    Really, this book has a most depressing view on whether or not it’s possible to find any meaning of life in modern society. In spite of the philosophy – which I know too little about to critique – about the only overarching meaning is provided by the social class system! There’s almost no real personal interaction, no moral code which might encourage them to find value in other human beings – and yet they moan on about how pointless and superficial everything and everyone is while floundering around being pointless and superficial themselves! Maybe the intended conclusion is that education in philosphy is pointless – the only people, aside from the Japanese romantic hero, who actually deal with other humans are the Portuguese cleaner, the religious lady who was the only one to extend her sympathies on Renee’s husband’s death, and the would-be vet (whose interest is primarily in animals).

    Japan seems to be like the Noble Savage – very foreign, very far away, and very able to be treated like an ideal to which we should aspire.
    Like everything else, this doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the real Japan, at least, not until Kakuro shows up. It’s all mediated through manga and movies.

    It’s a very odd book. I didn’t the characters much, or find them realistic.

    Well, OK, to be honest, Paloma is fairly typical of a certain type of bright sheltered teenager going through adolescent angst, which is rather tedious if you aren’t the teenager in question.

    But although it was an interesting read, I can’t say it’s the sort of thing I’d normally read. I might try ‘Gourmet Rhapsody’ anyway, since I’ve got it from the library.


    25 Jul 11 at 2:33 pm

  3. Gourmet Rhapsody

    As I said above, I did read this, very quickly. It’s slim little volume, less complicated than the Hedgehog book. There’s only one focus and no one goes on about philosophy and Japan. Instead, the main character, the food critic mentioned in the Hedgehog book, goes on and on about food. Clearly, his primary emotional connection is with food, which he describes at great length in loving, sensuous terms.

    He, I’ve forgotten his name, is a monster. All that is important to him is himself and his self-indulgences. They don’t seem like self-indulgences to him, not the food and (to a much lesser extent) the women. They’re just things he loves and has a passion for. I don’t thing I’ve ever seen gluttony portrayed not as greed, but as need, as an emotional outlet and expression of love. That’s probably why gluttony is considered a sin, and that’s his relationship with food. Everything else – even making and breaking the reputations of chefs – is secondary, at best.

    Naturally, in his view all the other people in his world are, to him, merely more or less useful objects who circle him like planets, doing useful things like running his household or going on errands or, in special cases, preparing exceptional food. But these people – all the other humans in the book – ultimately not of immense importance. Not like food.

    I think the author did a good job showing both the damage done by him to his family, and the almost helpless way some of us remain attached to truly destructive people who are incapable of changing.

    Again, it wasn’t a terribly cheerful view of human relationships, although it was well done. I suppose if you can’t die surrounded by those you loved and helped over the years, you can hope to be like that horrible old man and die completely unaware and uncaring of the people around you and how you hurt them, happy in your memories of the taste of food. Sometimes, a bit of insight into one’s past life would surely be the worst kind of torture!


    25 Jul 11 at 7:56 pm

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