I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about Muriel Barbery’s L’Elégance du Hérisson and although I resist framing it this way – since I do think there are parts of the book which prompt valuable discussion and in general I think Barbery writes well – I found myself more frustrated with the novel than anything else.
Basically the novel follows two individuals – Renée, the concierge in a luxurious Parisian apartment building, and Paloma, one of the building’s residents, a twelve-year-old self-declared genius. Through alternating narratives, which are both bitter and sarcastic, these two detail their anger and loneliness. They are both out to expose the hypocrisy in the average wealthy person’s soul – Paloma by ridiculing the thoughts and behaviors of her family, and Renée by condemning the thoughts and behaviors of everyone else in the building.
From the angry, frustrated and self-styled intellectual perspective of both Paloma and Renée, these critiques really do come off as ridicule. Renée is much more derisive, and presumably her age and experience have made her opinions that much more ingrained. Paloma is more reactive – she is living her disappointment, not just looking back on it. But both characters speak from a place of smug superiority, no matter how tainted that superiority is with their loneliness.
Only a few people are exempt from Paloma and Renée’s scorching diatribes: Olympe, a wealthy young woman whose greatest aspiration is to become a veterinarian and so she practices on the building’s cats; Manuela, the cleaning lady and Renée’s best friend – although Renée makes sure to point out that Manuela is intellectually inferior, but otherwise an elegant, dignified woman; and Mr. Ozu, the Japanese man who moves into the building halfway through the novel and throws this little Parisian microcosm into an uproar.
Usually I like stories that explore class differences because I think we often pretend (at least I feel the subject is taboo with many Americans) that class doesn’t exist. Barbery runs headlong into a very scathing discussion of class, but I can’t help feeling that where she could have done something a bit more serious, a bit more nuanced, instead she went overboard into caricature. And this includes the very heavy philosophical overtones of the entire book. I have no doubt that people like the ones she describes in this book do exist, but I resist the idea that these stereotypes are the norm. The book didn’t need to use such exaggerated stereotypes to prove its point, this just seemed to make things sensational and I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by that.
It seemed to me that in her attempt to balance things out, Barbery inadvertently offends some of the very people she would presumably prefer to champion. Take Renée – a concierge who pretends to be something she is not. Renée is portrayed as a deeply intellectual woman, brimming with curiosity about philosophy and aesthetics and history and social justice, yet she pretends to watch mindless television all day and eat disgusting food, not to mention uses carefully placed grammatical mistakes, all because she believes this is what her wealthy tenants require of her. Not only does this typecast the wealthy people in her building, but it’s fairly demeaning toward other concierges as well. Why is Renée the only intelligent, curious concierge in all of Paris?
Now I realize that I am to understand Renée’s behavior as a result of her loneliness and fear but I had trouble with this dichotomy. If Renée is truly that enlightened and curious and intelligent, why is she also so broken? I suppose one can be intelligent and hard-hearted at the same time, but the way Renée’s sensibility and intellect were portrayed suggested to me that they should also preclude her from engaging in the same petty labeling as the people in the building.
And in all honesty, I had a lot of trouble with the stereotyping of Japanese culture in the novel. Even before Mr. Ozu arrives in the building, both Renée and Paloma make statements idealizing Japanese culture and aesthetics, and its superiority vs. the superficial culture of the West. I find this kind of east-west pigeon-holing quite dangerous. I was born in Japan, I’ve lived and studied in Japan and I appreciate many aspects of Japanese culture, but I get quite prickly when I hear these kinds of sweeping statements. Especially from two characters that have never actually experienced Japanese culture first hand. Elements of both cultures are wonderful; elements of both cultures can be criticized.
It doesn’t help that when Mr. Ozu shows up, he is the perfect embodiment of all Renée and Paloma have imagined. So the stereotype is thus confirmed and perpetuated.
Despite what it may sound like here, I do recommend this book. It seems to me reactions to this novel are highly subjective. Some people have loved it, and found inside a worthwhile philosophical discussion about aesthetics and human nature. I’m afraid that my frustrations with the characters and with Barbery’s attempt to discuss class, kept me from enjoying aspects of the novel’s philosophical project.
Finally, and I hesitate to write this, but I found the ending fairly disappointing. It struck me as arbitrary, instead of a proper, organic finale. It almost felt like Barbery got worried her novel had somehow veered into mass-culture-chick-lit-ish territory (which I could argue that it did) and so terrified with that possibility, she took drastic measures to create a thought-provoking ending. I believe she could have accomplished a similar, if not better, emotional intonation with a more nuanced ending. Which makes me wonder if she was simply following a template, based on her understanding and interpretation of Japanese aesthetics. Read this way, the ending fits, but then I could argue she sacrificed the book’s crafted and hybrid aesthetic for something not much better than a gimmick…