Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hedgehog More Music Than Novel

(reflections on THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson.  Europa paperback 2010 edition.)

What makes life worth living?  Renee Michel, a woman on the declining side of fifty and Paloma Josse, a girl looking ahead to thirteen, both consider this question.  They remain largely unaware of each other until mid-way through THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery. 

The story is how their two approaches to the question converge.  The catalyst for convergence is the arrival of Mr. Kakuro Ozu, director of Japanese art films, who takes a floor in the upscale Paris apartment building where Mme. Michel is concierge and Paloma lives with her family.

Aside from this slender plot, this is less of a story than a series of essays that develop certain themes and motifs like music.   The form would be a kind of rondo –  ABABAB --  with narrative by Renee in two or three short chapters, followed by Paloma’s "profound thoughts" and journal entries, often begun with haiku.

Like music, there are broad themes, and little motifs.   Certainly a broad theme is the deep rooted class system maintained among even the most “lefty” Parisians, Paloma’s own parents.  Renee’s whole life is defined by her class. She seeks to remain invisible to the people of her building by keeping quiet and acting churlish, the way they expect her to be.  It is Paloma, with help from the Japanese visitor, who realizes that their rebarbative “hedgehog” is actually hiding a secret appetite for art, music, and philosophy (143). 

Another broad theme is what Paloma calls “the fishbowl.”  The adults in her life – “emotionally anorexic” grandmother, guilty father, pretentious mother and sister, "inept" teacher, fearful psychologist -- swim in circles seeing only reflections of themselves (145).  Like Mme. Michel, Paloma hides, eventually learning that the conciergerie is the best place for her to be invisible.  No one knows that Paloma has secretly resolved not to live past her thirteenth birthday.

Smaller motifs play off the themes:  Japanese culture, both classic and pop; camellias;  randy dogs and lethargic but decorative cats;  grammar as something to appreciate in the loveliness of language, which should not be “reduced to a long series of technical exercises” (156); and Tolstoy –  his art, but also his character who, “feeling the sweat on his back,” learns to appreciate how the lower classes live.

It’s no surprise that these two lonely, questing females find the worth of living when they begin to find each other.

Art itself is another reason to live.  Paloma grows rapturous when she hears her middle-school choir sing, beautiful in spite of the fact that all the individuals are stupid or bothersome (185).  Renee is “knocked out” by a still life painting (203), which, on reflection, she calls a symbol of the “plenitude” of the “suspended moment”(203).  She repeats the idea, derived from Japanese movie making, that “art is life, playing to other rhythms" (276).

With rhythm, texture, color, and its interplay of motifs, THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG can be enjoyed page by page without ever involving one as a novel.

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