Thursday, June 24, 2010

Consider the Camellia

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I was a pissy little teenager. Smart and judgemental and oh so knowing, I am forever grateful to the various loving adults who took me under their wing and showed me how large the world is, and how wonderful it is to be alive.

Reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery* took me right back to those miserable self-righteous days. The story is written in two voices. The first, Renée (meaning 'reborn'), is that of the testy old concierge in an exclusive apartment building. To all appearances, Renée is a thick-witted peasant, but closer scrutiny reveals a cunning autodidact who hides her knowledge and insight behind the veneer of fluffy slippers and soggy cooking smells so that she can read and think in solitude.

The second is that of a very bright young resident of the building, Paloma. Disillusioned by the facades presented by those around her, and sickened by the trappings of wealth, Paloma has decided to commit suicide to draw attention to their bloated lives. She chooses a date to die, and decides to keep two journals in the meantime in which she will observe beauty and see if she can find something to live for.

The tale is very simple, very predictable: the two lives intersect through the gentle machinations of a third resident, the characters blossom, and we have a moment of ineffable beauty. In between, we are invited to reflect on philosophy, academia, grammar, art, social distinctions, Japanese aesthetics, the nature of time, the camellia's exquisite beauty, and what lies beneath through the observations and acerbic comments of these two characters.

Reviewers have raved about the author's lightness of touch, but phenomenology is phenomenology. The deftest of hands cannot leaven it enough for me; sections of the book are heavy going. These aside, the rest of the book is so gentle and so funny that I found myself alternately weeping and laughing out loud in public places.**

Paloma's diary in particular felt painfully, if hilariously, familiar. Like Paloma, I too was outraged by the injustice in the world, and sure that I was the only one to see it. I loathed my parents, thinking I saw right through them – and I am so glad that I lived long enough to begin to love and understand them again. Barbery realises the voice of a bright young teenager to perfection, just as she captures the spirit of a free-thinking and terribly private concierge.

My only quibble is the ending. The book starts very slowly, but gathers pace so that the ending is upon the reader shockingly fast – and it is so predictable, and so French! The last few pages made me feel Anglo through and through. But enough said. Read it yourself, and laugh, and weep. Then go for a walk, and find a camellia.

> Muriel Barbery The Elegance of the Hedgehog trans. by Alison Anderson (Europa: New York, 2008).

*Thanks, Brenda, for the recommendation!

**I usually read at the pub, far from the cares of three young children and an eternally gritty floor that could really use yet another vacuum. So there I was, sitting by myself at the smallest table which just happens to be on the edge of the stage, that is to say, in full view of the rest of the rapidly filling pub, reading and weeping and wiping my eyes on the enormous cloth napkin that came with my dinner. I know how ridiculous I must have looked – thank goodness that I'm getting to an age where it bothers me not one whit. Truth be told, I'm rather proud of it. I always thought I might like to grow up to be an eccentric; at times it feels like I'm well on the way. Cheers!

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