Reviewed December 8, 2009.
Europa Editions, New York, 2008. 325 pages.
Original title: L'elegance du herisson, published in France in 2006. Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #3 Fiction
Two people live at number 7, rue de Grenelle, who are far more than what they seem. The building holds eight luxury apartments and their amenities. Paloma, on the fifth floor, is planning to burn theirs down and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.
Why should a child with so many advantages and so much intelligence decide to end her life? Paloma explains:
All our family acquaintances have followed the same path: their youth spent trying to make the most of their intelligence, squeezing their studies like a lemon to make sure they'd secure a spot among the elite, then the rest of their lives wondering with a flabbergasted look on their faces why all that hopefulness has led to such a vain existence. People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd. That might deprive you of a few good moments in your childhood but it would save you a considerable amount of time as an adult -- not to mention the fact that you'd be spared at least one traumatic experience, i. e. the goldfish bowl....
But one thing is sure -- there's no way I'm going to end up in the goldfish bowl. I've thought it through quite carefully. Even for someone like me who is super-smart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority -- even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It's just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.
Meanwhile, the other surprising person in the building is Madame Michel, the humble concierge, who is determined never to give away to anyone in the building how brilliant she is.
I conform so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.
Since the image of the concierge is someone who lazily sits around and watches popular television shows, until her husband's death, Madame Michel let him preserve that part of her image.
With the advent of videocassettes and, subsequently, the DVD divinity, things changed radically, much to the enrichment of my happy hours. As it is not terribly common to come across a concierge waxing ecstatic over Death in Venice or to hear strains of Mahler wafting from her loge, I delved into my hard-earned conjugal savings and bought a second television set that I could operate in my hideaway. Thus, the television in the front room, guardian of my clandestine activities, could bleat away and I was no longer forced to listen to inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam -- I was in the back room, perfectly euphoric, my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art.
Paloma and Madame Michel share the beginning of the book in parallel, still in complete ignorance of each other. Paloma is trying to record some Profound Thoughts before she leaves the world, but also decides to write a journal alongside that records "masterpieces of matter." She's looking for "Something incarnate, tangible. But beautiful and aesthetic at the same time." The examples she comes up with are quite wonderful, and incidentally will make the reader look at some common things very differently than ever before.
The book gets off to a slow start as the two philosophize, and criticize the rich supposed intellectuals around them, living in their building. This book was probably not the best to choose to read in a doctor's waiting room, which was where I started it. It was, however, a fabulous choice to curl up with in bed on a lazy afternoon with snow gently falling outside, which was where I finished it.
Then one of the residents dies, his apartment is sold, and a Japanese filmmaker moves in. This man, Monsieur Ozu, immediately detects the two particularly brilliant souls among his neighbors, despite their clever disguises. Paloma says about him:
So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. 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 recognize people because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized 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. When my mother offers macaroons from Chez Laduree to Madame de Broglie, she is telling herself her own life story and just nibbling at her own flavor; when Papa drinks his coffee and reads his paper, he is contemplating his own reflection in the mirror, as if practicing the Coue method or something; when Colombe talks about Marian's lectures, she is ranting about her own reflection; and when people walk by the concierge, all they see is a void, because she is not from their world.
As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.
Monsieur Ozu is the one who tips these two extraordinary individuals off to each other. As Paloma begins to suspect Madame Michel, we discover where the title of the book came from:
As for Madame Michel . . . how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I've been watching her, when she would talk with Jean Arthens or when she talks to Neptune when Diane has her back turned, or when she looks at the ladies in the building who walk right by her without saying hello. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary -- and terribly elegant.
As Madame Michel's cover begins to come down with Paloma and with their amazing new neighbor, things begin to change.
Here is a beautiful book, definitely for reading when you are in a philosophical state of mind. I can see why it has been popular with book clubs. I will say up front that I don't like the ending, but it still didn't ruin the book for me. The philosophy is not exactly cheery, but I did like all the meditations about beauty, and the things to love, in the end, about life.
This book makes me wish I could read French well enough to try it in the original language. The translation job must have been tricky, as Madame Michel's appreciation for language, and her keen eye toward the way supposedly educated people misuse it, show us more of her brilliance. For example, Alison Anderson managed to translate a note with a misplaced comma into English. I wonder what the original was like, and if she was able to translate directly.
A book that will leave you thinking about it for a long time.