Rating 5 stars
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of the intellectual and philosophical engagements with life of two residents of a Parisian apartment building. Renée Michel is the widowed concierge of the building and Paloma Josse the 12 year old daughter of one of its residents. I bought the book a little more than three years ago but haven’t felt any urge to pick it up.
At the start of the story, Renée reveals herself to be an intellectual snob, disparaging of the wealthy who believe themselves superior to people of her social station and concealing the extent of her intellect by taking on the caricature of French concierge, as the building’s residents expect of her.
Paloma is equal to Renée in her snobbishness, believing herself to be too intellectually superior to carry on living.
At first I didn’t think I was going to like the book because its two narrators are so full of themselves. However, Barbery has a subtle wit and soon I discovered a thread of humour running through the pontificating that suggested there was more to these characters than first met the eye.
This tale of the comings and goings of the apartment residents, and Renée and Paloma’s observations on the people and the events they find themselves enduring, put me in mind of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Barbery doesn’t describe the day to day happenings from the same perspective as Perec, but instead reveals them to us secondhand through the gossip and excoriation of the narrators.
Renée and Paloma have more in common than just their sense of superiority. Both love Japanese culture and the way it embodies the eternal at the centre of impermanence. Both are tea drinkers. Both have cats as companions. For all that Renée claims that nobody likes her because she doesn’t like people, I felt like she and I would be friends. I’d sit drinking tea, discussing Japanese films and Russian literature with her while her cat Leo sleeps on his chair.
Towards the middle of the book, a new resident arrives. Kakuro Ozu is Japanese and loves Russian literature. He’s also very perceptive and quickly spots that all is not as it appears with Renée. Forming a quick conspiratorial friendship with Paloma, he instigates a mission to uncloak Renée’s secret self. And this is the point at which everything changes. Both Renée and Paloma come to understand, about themselves and each other, that their intellectual superiority is a defence against not being understood or accepted for who they are.
I found myself slowing down as I read, because each narrator takes time to consider what is happening in front of her in order to appraise it, whether that’s by trying to gain more knowledge about a subject or by trying to find sufficient beauty in the world to justify a continued existence.
The core of the book is the idea that we’re all the same at heart. Birthright doesn’t come into it unless we choose to play along with the social rules that say birthright is everything. Imposter syndrome is another theme, along with the inability of people to really see those around them, and the way we dress each other in the garments we think make sense for a given situation. This is something that I think about a lot, because I am less confident on the inside than I appear to those who observe me. I am not lacking in confidence, but in some situations, to carry me through, I put on a show of confidence as a form of defence, to convince myself that I deserve to be in the place I find myself. As well as this, my appearance of confidence is partly down to the way other people view me, assuming that I am in the place I find myself because I have the right to be there. They are clothing me in the garment of belonging. I do it, too, clothing others, making assumptions. We all do. Barbery has Paloma put it this way:
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 recognise each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realised this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy.
Renée puts it another way:
… sight is like a hand that tries to seize flowing water. Yes, our eyes may perceive, yet they do not observe; they may believe, but they do not question; they may receive yet they do not search: they are emptied of desire, with neither hunger nor passion.
There are so many lines in this book that resonated with me. Barbery captures the probing, philosophical nature of the 12-year-old Paloma and the fearful, defensive cloak worn by Renée in simple yet powerful phrases.
I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.
… Papa constructs himself, every day … each time it’s a new construction, as if everything has been reduced to ashes during the night, and he has to start from scratch. In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly and ephemeral, so fragile, cloaking despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.
So thinks Paloma when reflecting on the fact that children expect adults to know things about life and the world and yet turn into adults who know that they don’t know things but lie to their children to seem as though they do.
Paloma also captures the essence of a particular type of person, an example of whom is currently popular with journalists covering the excruciating inching of the UK Parliament towards the cliff edge of leaving the EU.
… many intelligent people have a sort of bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself. They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid. And when intelligence takes itself for its own goal, it operates very strangely: the proof that it exists is not to be found in the ingenuity or simplicity of what it produces, but in how obscurely it is expressed.
For example, Jacob Rees-Mogg commenting on something of vital importance to everyone in the country using the dead and elitist language, Latin.
It’s something that Barbery has Renée reflect on, too, this idea that intelligence, and especially intelligence not put to practical use, is a bug in the human system.
… by allowing us to survive, the efficiency of intelligence also offers us the possibility of complexity without foundation, thought without usefulness, and beauty without purpose. It’s like a computer bug, a consequence without consequence of the subtlety of our cortex, a superfluous perversion making an utterly wasteful use of the means at its disposal.
From Renée, we also receive observations on what it is to be a woman who sets greater store on intellect than on how she presents herself to the world, and who never expects to be noticed because of it. From the moment she realises that she has been not only noticed but recognised to her tentative steps into dressing in a way both alien to her but gently pleasurable, she is the embodiment of the woman who has been told by society that she isn’t womanly enough.
Something moves house inside me – yes, how else to describe it, I have the preposterous feeling that one existing inner living space has been replaced by another. Does that never happen to you? You feel things shifting around inside you, and you are quite incapable of describing just what has changed, but it is both mental and spatial, the way moving house is.
Renée’s burgeoning relationship with Kakuro was delicious in its ambiguity. It could have gone either way for me, into friendship or romantic involvement. Part of me hoped for friendship, just for a novel to recognise that friendship is sometimes enough and not all relationships between men and women have to be about attraction and romantic love. I have been thinking the same about the nascent relationship between the eponymous character in the BBC drama Fleabag and the young priest who is to officiate at her father’s second marriage to her godmother. The series is only three episodes in, but the plotline is suggesting a romantic entanglement growing from a mutual liking and a sense of the forbidden. The characterisation of Fleabag as a lost soul hiding behind outrageous behaviour makes me sad for the way so many people are so lonely that they mistake friendly interest and platonic love for something other, in their minds something more rather than something different. I had a similar feeling about Renée in this book, that perhaps she was lonely and mistaking Kakuro’s intentions.
The moment when Kakuro takes Renée out to dinner and she’s dressed in such a way that two of the apartment’s residents fail to recognise her that he says something beautiful to her made me melt, though, in the way old black and white films sometimes make me melt.
‘It is because they have never seen you,’ he says. ‘I would recognise you anywhere.’
Who doesn’t yearn for recognition like that?
I loved this book. I waited three years to read it. Three years ago, I might not have got as much out of it as I did this week. It’s a book that has waited for me to be ready for it.