Saturday, March 07, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Elegant Hedgehogs

You can find your weekly dose of contemporary literature at "Saturday Story Hour."

Fosco has been doing more actual work as of late and, consequently, doing less "pleasure" reading (it goes it cycles, you know). But last week, he did manage to read Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (or charmingly, in the original French, L'élégance du hérisson). He wants to credit Maggie at The Improvisatrice for recommending the novel in this post of awesome things. When Fosco came across the title again a few weeks ago (in this NY Times article about a publisher that is successfully selling translated literary novels from Europe), he knew he must read it. So he made the trip to his local independent bookstore (as promised) and picked up the surprisingly elegant(!) Europa edition.

The book was a bestseller in France and has garnered mainly positive reviews here in the States (although not every critic appreciates "the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer"--ouch). Accessible or no, flattering or no, Fosco enjoyed this book a great deal (and one would think that Fosco hardly needs to be flattered with intellectual veneer). Sure, the mini-essays on philosophy occasionally seem a bit forced (although mostly they do not), but what's important in this novel are the characters and the possibilities of their relationships.

And when it comes to the characters and their lives, the novel is extremely moving. In fact, Fosco is willing to admit that the last two chapters of the novel made him cry. A lot. We're not talking about a few sniffles and moist eyes; we're talking tears streaming down his cheeks, wiping his eyes to be able to see the page in front of him. To be honest, Fosco hasn't cried like that over a book in quite a while.

Now before you run out and read it, you should know that the novel is very French. It is engaged with social class in a way that would never occur in most American novels (whether that's because of a real cultural difference or because of a denial of the role of class in the US, well, that is a good question). The novel is built, to a large extent, around the everyday codes of language and politesse that codify (and enervate) social relations in France (or, at least in this fictional stereotype of France). Also, there is much comedy focusing on two of the long-standing obsessions of the French haute bourgeoisie: socialism and psychoanalysis.

The novel is composed of two intertwined narratives: that of a widowed fiftyish concierge for a ritzy apartment building and that of a precocious twelve-year-old living in the same building. The concierge is from the lower class and has no real formal education; yet, she is an amazingly well-read autodidact who reads philosophy for fun. However, as she is worried about appearing to have ambitions above her station, she hides her keen intellect and cultivated taste behind a veneer of stereotypical concierge stupidity. The twelve-year-old also hides her extraordinary intellect--mainly from her family. She is smart enough to see through the pretensions of the adult world and despairs at the prospect of adult life. She intends to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.

Does hilarity ensue? Not exactly. What happens is sweet, humane, and (eventually) heartbreaking. This is novel that explores the pleasures and the pains of secrecy, the tentative joys of making a new friend, and the purpose of cats. At its heart is the extremely comforting suggestion (to Fosco at least) that there is a secret fellowship of those who love beauty and who spend their lives searching for it. It is the idea of this fellowship that helps make the pain in this novel bearable for Fosco.

And while "Saturday Story Hour" typically focuses on a short story, there is nothing other than this novel that Fosco can discuss this week. And so, instead of a short story, Fosco offers you the first chapter of this remarkable novel. I hope that it leaves you wanting more.

The first chapter of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, trans. by Alison Anderson.

1. Whosoever Sows Desire

"Marx has completely changed the way I view the world," declared the Pallières boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me.

Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite--a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups--beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to. How could the laboring classes understand Marx? Reading Marx is an arduous task, his style is lofty, the prose is subtle and the thesis complex.

And that is when I very nearly--foolishly--gave myself away.

"You ought to read The German Ideology," I told him. Little cretin in his conifer green duffle coat.

To understand Marx and understand why he is mistaken, one must read The German Ideology. It is the anthropological cornerstone on which all his exhortations for a new world would be built, and on which a sovereign certainty is established: mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire, would do better to confine itself to its own needs. In a world where the hubris of desire has been vanquished, a new social organization can emerge, cleansed of struggle, oppression and deleterious hierarchies.

"Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression," I nearly murmured, as if only my cat were listening to me.

But Antoine Pallières, whose repulsive and embryonic whiskers have nothing the least bit feline about them, is staring at me, uncertain of my strange words. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble. Concierges do not read The German Ideology; hence, they would certainly be incapable of quoting the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. Moreover, a concierge who reads Marx must be contemplating subversion, must have sold her soul to the devil, the trade union. That she might simply be reading Marx to elevate her mind is so incongruous a conceit that no member of the bourgeoisie could ever entertain it.

"Say hello to your mother," I murmur as I close the door in his face, hoping that the complete dissonance between my two sentences will be veiled by the might of millennial prejudice.


If you should desire to purchase this novel from, you can do so by using this link:

A very small percentage will go to Fosco and he will appreciate it...

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Maggie said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I was a total mess at the end as well - not quite the shrieking levels of "A Tale of Two Cities" (the seamstress kills me every time), but certainly enough to be glad that I was on my couch and not on public transport. I was a bit bothered by the Times review because I do enjoy the blend brilliant prose with a very easy and slightly predictable plotting - novels don't have to be philosophically deep and structurally challenging to be "good".

Really, this book is just joyous.

Anonymous said...

I bought it!

Jeremy said...

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.