Monday, October 19, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
Published by Europa Editions
Translated from the French by Allison Anderson

For some time now I've had an itching to take French lessons. I have no idea why. Long ago, in my ancient past, I took a semester of university French with Madame Maas and did not like the language. I think I felt it too simplistic and effete after the rigors of wrestling with German syntax and Russian verb aspects.

Perhaps, these 40 years later, I am more inclined to a search for elegance.

Muriel Barbery brings us two seemingly disparate characters - a fifty-something concierge for an elite apartment complex and a twelve-year-old daughter of one of the complex families. Both, however, are bitter, super-intelligent misfits who have built themselves into their own individual worlds of misery. They are both philosophical snobs, decrying the fallacies and foibles of those on the other sides of the invisible walls they've built around themselves.

I didn't like either of them much for the first 150 pages or so of their individual journals. I wanted to give them each a swift kick in the keister and wondered why I was even bothering to continue reading. But this is a book not just about redemption, but transformation. Barbery manages to weave a thin thread of hope of that transformation through her characters' misery. Just hints, but they held me through to the sad, but satisfying, ending.

I particularly enjoyed this passage on the joy of writing by Madame Michel, the concierge:
This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this - ridiculous journal of an aging concierge - if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

Yup. I get that. Been there. Frequently.

And shortly after this passage twelve-year-old Paloma brings us this after a visit to her grandmother:
So, we mustn't forget any of this, absolutely not. We have to live with the certainty that we'll get old and that it won't look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it's now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength. Always remember that there's a retirement home waiting somewhere and so we have to surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb our own personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity.

That's what the future is for: to build the present, with real plans, made by living people.

So, basically what Barbery tells us through Madame Michel and Paloma is get out of your heads, break down your invisible walls, find your passion, and live life like it will end tomorrow, because it might. Not an original premise certainly - we hear it from motivational speakers ad infinitum - but Barbery presents it in such a very elegant way.

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