Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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…

27 Responses to “Muriel Barbery – L'élégance du hérisson”

  1. Anna van Gelderen

    I was as frustrated with the book as you were. The main reason for me was that Barbery has failed to create believable protagonists. Renée is improbable enough: what self-educated person who has never had any one to talk to but her proletarian husband and an uneducated cleaning woman talks like a philosophy professor?
    And Paloma is even worse. She may be a genius, but she is als a twelve year old CHILD with no life experience whatsoever, and we are supposed to believe that she able is to come up with profundities such as:
    “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 each other 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. ”
    Don’t get me wrong: I like what the author says here, it is wise and it is interesting, but no twelve-year-old would ever be able to come up with something like that. And this is just one example.
    I would like to read essays by Muriel Barbery, for the things she has to say are interesting and important, but as a novel this book is not a success, as far as I am concerned.

  2. litlove

    Interesting – I was most intrigued to hear what your take on this would be. I really must read it – I do like to see how these controversies play out in my own reading mind. But I trust your judgement and am sure you have made very good calls here – particularly on the incoherence of the characters.

  3. Stefanie

    It seems people either like this one or they don’t but everyone appreciates how well written it is. I’ve not read it, but I want to. In the meantime I am enjoying all the various reactions.

  4. nicole

    If I were to have written a review of this book, sight unseen, based on the things I have read and heard about it, this is exactly what I would have written, I think.

    I appreciate your exhortation to read it anyway, especially as I spend a decent amount of time reading things I’m not totally enamored of. I’ll keep this one on the “low simmer” list, I think.

  5. mel

    Yes Renee does somehow reduce the people she sees in the building to stereotypes just as she reduces herself to one. I think a reader needs to see through this as part of the effects of the limits of Renee’s mind and education. The Irony is in her mind she mocks the occupants of the building for not seeing her as a whole person whereas she does the same thing to them without knowing it. As to the worship of Japanese culture-I think this is also to be taken in a kind of ironic mode. I did find the character of the 12 year old girl not really convincing in terms of her profound utterances-

    What I liked best about the book was its depiction of how a life of reading can shape a person. Anyone who is into the reading life and has worked with or worse for those that seem way inferior culturally will love Madame Renee!

  6. verbivore

    Anna – Interestingly enough, I forced myself to suspend my disbelief in the first few chapters, agreeing to allow Barbery to create her fictional universe with such unlikely characters, so in that sense I didn’t have too much trouble accepting Renée and Paloma for who they were. But things got even more complicated once I did that, because who they were caused further problems for me 🙂 And I do think it would be interesting to read some essays by Barbery, she is a philosophy professor in Paris and I suspect she knows her stuff. Translated into fiction, though, posed some problems for me. I hope she will continue writing and I look forward to see what else she creates.

  7. verbivore

    Litlove – I feel as though I should do a second post on what I felt worked in the novel, and I will toy with that idea for the next few days. It wasn’t a wholly frustrating book, only my frustratation trumped the rest in the end…but I am very interested to see what you will think. If you can’t get a hold of a French copy, let me know and I’ll send you mine.

    Stefanie – If anything this book is wonderful for discussion, since yes, it does seem to solicit very subjective reactions. I look forward to your thoughts!

    Nicole – I have a hard time writing negative reviews, because I can see quite a few of the merits of this particular book. But in the end I was more frustrated than anything else, perhaps because I felt her idea had such great potential which got watered down. But if you do decide to read it, I’d love to know what you think!

    Mel – You make a very good point about Renée being hampered by her experience, and I suppose it’s helpful to view this as irony, although I wonder if Barbery would have wanted the reader to see so much of her book as ironic? And you are absolutely right about the effects of reading on a life, this is one aspect of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Renée and Ozu’s shared love of literature is rightfully what brings them together.

  8. mel

    Renee’s self respect and self image comes from her ability to see those she works for and must be subservient to as stereo types-cartoon characters or characters in a soap opera almost, not real persons with a rich interior life such as she has built for herself over the years of reading serious books. She carefully hides her reading and intelligence as she knows it may make her rich employers uncomfortable (Renee and Barbery know of Hegel’s master/slave reading of history and knows why slaves were not allowed to learn to read in most cultures.) Also, if Renee does some how open up the carefully hidden aspects of her personality she may find those she looks down on are not the shallow fools she seems them to be. Renee needs, in part, to hide in order to protect herself image, maybe. As to her initial bonding with the Japanese man over Tolstoy, this is very interesting. The Japanese man does not fit easily into her stereotypes nor she into his. He may well be the richest person in the building thus, in her projected ethos of the building dwellers, above her employers in status. Tolstoy is an interesting choice here as he creates a whole world, he is hardly pro French. When ever he writes in French in War and Peace it seems the speakers are banal, at best. Husserl, her philosopher of choice (ok here
    I am leaning on reading I did 40 years ago) is saying every thing is perception. To me one of the big points of Elegance of the Hedgehog is that we are all in part trapped by the stereotypes we project on others and those we let them project on us. Madame Renee sees her employers as 1/2 educated materialists and they see her as what she likes to pretend she is. Another big point to me is that reading enlarged the world of Madame Renee-she can see further into the ironies and pleasures of life. Notice she never things of her cleaning lady friend in condescending terms. I need also to rethink my reactions to the child character. Super bright children are into math, science, gadgets etc not profundity but maybe I am missing something here. Any way, I really like this book a lot and wish I could read it in French.

  9. Dorothy W.

    Your critiques of the book make a lot of sense to me, and although I liked the book a lot, I can see that it has its flaws. I suppose this is the kind of book where you fall under its spell or you don’t, and therefore you’re willing to forgive its flaws or you’re not. I was resistant for the first few pages and found Renee’s prickliness annoying, but eventually the ideas became interesting enough that I stopped feeling that way. I wasn’t really convinced by the backstory that explains Renee’s behavior — but again, I was willing to forgive that. I’d certainly be curious to read your possible post on what works in this novel!

  10. verbivore

    Mel – Thank you for your thoughtful comment. This is a great point, “that we are all in part trapped by the stereotypes we project on others and those we let them project on us”. What I found difficult, however, is that Barbery doesn’t seem to offer an alternative to this…if we’re trapped, where is the way out? Renée certainly doesn’t find it, if we’re to accept the ending as the ONLY ending for Renée. I suppose we’re meant to believe that things are different for Paloma, that in fact Renée and Ozu’s story is just backstory for Paloma’s future life.

    Dorothy – I agree that this book asks you to suspend your disbelief in a number of places, which I was able to do a little but ultimately not enough. I did really enjoy Paloma’s notebook on movement and thought this was one of the more interesting aspects of the text. There is a lot to discuss in this book, which means Barbery was successful on many, many levels. I look forward to seeing her future work!

  11. mel

    Verbivore, Like you I did not like the ending as a novelistic device and I did not like it as a way of closing the story. Of course we are curious what might become of Paloma. My guess is she slowly develops into another Rich Person in the apartment but will always be somehow detached. I think there is a lot in this book on the reading life and I think one of the points is that it can detach you somehow. Sometimes the detachment allows you to rise above the banalities of life and sometimes it leaves you out. I think Paloma will be able to be honest with herself as she ages. Do you think as she ages she will be caught up in the “reading life”? As an adult will she end not seeing beyond stereotypes or is she already totally caught up in them? Or is that all there is?

  12. Lilian Nattel

    That’s a fascinating review as counterpoint to another I read by someone who loved this book. Now I’m curious. As an aside, I found a similar idealization of Japanese culture in Snow Falling on Cedars and wondered if he was trying to counteract negative stereotypes particularly given the time period that the novel is set in.

  13. mel

    To me, Hedgehog does not really idealize Japanese culture itself, it uses Madame Renee and Paloma’s adoration for Japanese culture as part of its treatment of the effects of stereotypes. Renee and Paloma know next to nothing about Japanese culture and it is this lack of knowledge that allows them to project reading induced stereotypes on the Japanese character in the novel. I really like “The Elegance of Hedgehogs” (ok I love it) for its account of the reading life. It also tells us a lot about the effects of stereotypes.

  14. Smithereens

    Verbivore, your post is great and you pointed out causes of discomfort a lot better than I did. I was annoyed by the characters and couldn’t analyze exactly why. I’m relieved not to be alone in my uneasiness about this book. It’s funny how this book seems to polarize opinions.

  15. verbivore

    Lilian – Your comment about Snow Falling on Cedars makes me think because I really enjoyed that book and didn’t find myself getting annoyed at any stereotypical portrayal of Japanese-Americans. Perhaps it is the time period that smoothed that out, or perhaps it was his description of the younger generations attempt to bridge two cultures that won me over…

    Smithereens – I agree, I had such a hard time putting into words why I was so frustrated with this book. But I’ll be very curious to read something else by Barbery. Have you read her first novel?

  16. mel

    With regard to the stereotypical portrayal of Japanese culture in Hedgehogs, it is very important to the points of the story to see that it is Paloma who is most guilty of this

  17. Arti

    Links after links I arrived here. It seems we have some mutual blog sites. I’ve just finished reading the book, and find it most gratifying. I’ve enjoyed the characters, their philosophical ponderings, and ‘social critique’.

    I feel that the book should be taken leisurely as an enjoyment, entertainment even, rather than a philosophical treatise. It’s like a fable, a modern tale, the characters are imaginary, and therefore not to be taken so literally. I LOL many times. I find much delight in following the ruminations between Renée and Paloma, and see K. Ozu as an ideal type. I marvel at the translation… although I don’t read French to be able to compare. I admit the ending is unexpected for me, and I find it heart-wrenching. But then again, it’s serves its purpose in illustrating some of the major ideas discussed in the whole book.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your review and the discussions in the comments. I’ll definitely stop by more now.

  18. Book Bird Dog

    I didn’t take this book literally. I just saw it as social satire, so had no problem with the characters, whom I saw as vehicles for the author’s ideas. I didn’t even try to see if they were realistic characters or not. I didn’t think that was the purpose of the book.

  19. Silvia

    Great post and comments. As many of you, I loved the book when I was reading it, right after I finished it I found the ending was castrating, and my after thoughts on it coincide with the limitations the novel has as a fiction book and I started to question if I really ‘liked the book’.
    It attracted me because I saw some potential (Muriel loves Russian literature) of reading sort of a contemporary Anna Karenina, that has a universe of well crafted characters, social and philosophical reflections, intricate descriptions…it was like taking of from the ‘blah blah blah’ literature of these days that I keep reading and that keeps leaving me empty and not as satisfied as when you read one of the consecrated authors of the past.
    Maybe the main reason for my love affair with the book is that I’m from Spain, I read it in Spanish (and our languages are very close, so are our cultures), we in Spain have the same old buildings of wealthy people and concierges. I studied philosophy, I’m two years younger than the writer, and I share many of the cliches with her that, if blunt stereotypes, it’s fun to read because they hit home.
    I have a previous book by her, Gourmet Rhapsody, so I’m going to give Muriel another try.
    Maybe her books are pseudo intellectual? Like junk food disguised in a gourmet presentation?

  20. Catherine Dubois

    I am french and just finished the book which I really loved, and totally agree with you Arti and Book Bird Dog; and through some critiques, I regret this book might be too “french”, since there are definitly still gaps between classes in France and foreigners sometimes still don’t know about that…

    • verbivore

      Catherine – Thank you for leaving a comment. I’m not sure the book is too French, there are class differences in all cultures and the book could have been set almost anywhere in the world. I believe Barbery was focusing on a particular Parisian culture (specifically the concierge system in wealthy apartment buildings) but a lot of the story had universal themes. I think criticisms of the novel mostly deal with how Barbery handled her stereotyping and whether she pulled off a satire.

  21. chasing bawa

    I’ve just finished reading this book and really loved it. I’m really glad I read your review because it discussed the book in a much more detailed and thoughtful manner and makes me want to go back and re-read the book again. I do agree that Renee and Paloma come across as smug and superior, but I feel that Barbery’s use of humour tempers it somewhat. I think she brings out the loneliness and frustration of people who are unable to communicate properly with others and feel alienated. Like you, I also wasn’t sure about the ending which was really abrupt – broke my heart a little. I didn’t really mind the Japanese bits that much, they weren’t too way off course even though they were a typical ‘Western’ view of Japan.

    • verbivore

      I’m glad you liked it, I do think this is a book that bears a good discussion. I’m glad I read it with a book group so we could discuss it for a few hours. Have you read any of her other work?

  22. Mel Lewis

    I read the book a few months ago in French and absolutely loved it. I have lived in France for many years and although I rarely read in that language, I think it helps to have an appreciation of the culture and stereotypes that persist in this country, especially in the rich Parisian milieu. Although I can imagine they would ring a little less true in English, for me the characters spoke in voices that were completely credible. Sure, it’s a novel written by a philosophy prof, but undeniably it works. I had no trouble suspending disbelief. Arti and Book Bird Dog have it right!

  23. M.A.

    Hi there– those who read the book in French have a definite advantage– there’s a lot of (self-) parody in this book and I wonder if it carries over in English translations?

    • verbivore

      It’s a good question, I read the book in French so I can’t say how the English version compares. The translator, Alison Anderson, is one of the best, if not the best contemporary Fr-Eng translator out there and I’m certain she made sure to transfer that element of satire into the English version. For another project of mine, I’m going to be looking more closely at the original versus the translation, so I might have some more thoughts on that later. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  24. Peter Deppisch

    I grew up in Europe and as Book Bird Dog says: “I had no problem with the characters and the author’s social commentary.” It still is like that in a lot of ways.
    And I suspended belief to see where this would go. I found the book very engaging and liked the style of using diaries. I picked it up because I like hedgehogs and having lived through a fair bit of trauma and having become very prickly a la hedgehog, I identified with Renée. Some of us keep a low profile because of abuse and/or PTSD and try to get through life as best we can.

    I have a huge problem with the ending.

    We find out about Renée’s sister’s fate near the end of the book and now we know why Renée chose her life the way she did! And then bingo – same ending for Renée after the pious words: “You can be what you want to be!”.

    What was the point of the book? Social satire? That maybe life can be better if you change your attitude and so don’t have to perish like Renée’s sister?
    Or we must have a typical “good literature” ending because Renée hid like a hedgehog when she should have used her intelligence and made something of herself?
    Or life is about sacrifice so another human gets saved, i. e. Paloma. We have the Jesus Christ story for that.
    Don’t need another one!

    And I expected a novel or unusual ending and there were many ways of doing that but – no – we needed a Tolstoy ending. 😦

    I would say a betrayal of the human spirit.

    The joke is on us one more time.

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