L’élégance du hérisson
lay-lay-GAHSS dew ay-ree-SAW. Click below to hear this pronounced.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Yes, I know, that’s what I thought too when I first saw this. But the cover was the sort that tends to attract me (and my credit card) in airport bookstores, and so I bought it.
And then I read it. This is an extraordinary book! I first read it in the English translation. In fact, I bought it without realizing at the time that it had been translated from the French, and didn’t catch on until after I had begun reading. (That should tell you how good the translation, by Alison Anderson, is.) All the same, I have now bought the French version of this novel, as well as Barbery’s first, La gourmandise. (Both novels are available in both languages from Amazon. Check carefully for best prices and shipping dates.)
Now, about this book. Imagine a Parisian concierge, bright, well-read, and sensitive to the arts but trying her best to maintain the surly demeanor and frumpy appearance that she believes is expected of a concierge. That’s Renée. Imagine also a twelve-year-old girl who has given up on finding a meaning to life and has resolved to commit suicide on her next birthday. That’s Paloma, equally bright and thoughtful, and equally convinced that she is a misfit.
Now set them to interacting with a jumble of rich snobs who live in the same apartment building. Renée and Paloma narrate their separate voyages of discovery, each peeling back of the layers of the society they are caught in. What happens when they finally cross paths in a meaningful way is breathtaking.
This is the second novel by this relatively new author, Muriel Barbery. Her style is by turns poetic, lyrical, casual, philosophical, didactic. The general tenor of the book is a bit like the sterotype of French films: a good deal more talk than action. That doesn’t matter to me, but if you are looking for a good spy thriller, forget this.
But if you revel in novels that reflect on language, art, music, beauty, and the meaning of life, as seen through tiny daily actions, interactions, and observations, look for this book. It won 4 French literary prizes in 2007, and was on the New York Times Bestseller List. Don’t read it for that, though. Read it to weave your day through with bright colors of poetry and shards of light and memorable characters.
Tomorrow: A brief excerpt from L’élégance du hérisson.
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