Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

That Muriel Barbery’s 2006 novelThe Elegance of the Hedgehog has sold like proverbial hot cakes is no surprise. It is woven with references to philosophers as one would expect from a teacher of philosophy (reminding me of Robert M. Pirzig’s 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and its chapters are interleaved with haiku-like passages of moving beauty. It is also funny, playful, smart, very well-crafted and yet easy to read.

The plot revolves around the occupants of Number 7 Rue de Grenelle, a seven-floor, grand apartment building in a fashionable quarter of Paris. As is the way with such buildings, all coming and goings pass the glass windows of the concierge’s lodge, occupied in this case by 54 year-old Renée Michel. She has been head-concierge for 27 years and knows everything about the place. She considers herself to be “a proletarian autodidact” and knows much more about philosophy, art and matters cultural than she would wish her eight employers to know. Though she has the breath of a mammoth and wears an overall that suggests that she is a cretin, Renée is as smart as they come.

Muriel Barbery has scripted a bravura act of concealment. How long the concierge can keep her real self a secret gives the novel an element of suspense. How long will it be, for example, before somebody cottons on to the fact that her cat, Leo, is named after the author of her favourite novel, Anna Karenina? How would the old-moneyed Madame Pallières of the 6th floor react if she knew that this lowly concierge had in private considered that the hand-written note instructing her to sign for laundry was deemed “an instance of blasphemy” because of an unnecessarily inserted comma? Renée considered the note “a dribbling scribbling on vellum”.

Five floors above Renée lives 12 year-old Paloma Josse. Her father is a member of parliament and her mother holds a Ph.D. in literature, so Paloma is also smart. Early on in the novel, we see that she discovers a shared interest with Renée in the films of the Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, so Paloma evidently has somewhat high-brow tastes for her age. But she is no snob. Although she detests the way her older sister (whose philosophy MA thesis is on the medieval theologian William of Okham) speaks as if she belongs to “a gang of working-class kids”, Paloma is bored rigid by the pretensions of most of the building’s occupants. There is a synergy ripe for development between the young girl in the fifth floor apartment and the older woman in the ground floor lodge. But Paloma is not the one to expose Renée for what she is. Part of the fun of this delicious novel is in anticipating the identity of who that person that might be. Muriel Barbery has peopled Number 7 Rue de Grenelle, and therefore the novel, with a fine cast of characters (and pets), as can be seen in the ‘occupant map’ below. Care to hazard a guess as to which of them may blow Renée’s cover?

The occupants of #7 Rue de Grenelle, Paris
6th
floor
PALLIÈRES, Antoine (an industrialist) and Sabine (an heiress of an old Banque de France family)
  • son “little” Antoine
  • cleaner, Manuela LOPES (paid €8 an hour)
5th
floor
JOSSE, Monsieur (a member of parliament) and Madame Solange (a literature Ph.D.)
  • elder daughter, Colombe (studying philosophy at the École Normale Supérior) (with scruffy boyfriend Tibère, studying mathematics at the same institute)
  • younger daughter, Paloma (12)
  • two cats, Constitution and Parliament)
  • cleaner, Mrs GRÈMOND
  • [apartment inherited]
4th
floor
ARTHENS, ‘Mâitre’ Pierre (a food critic) and Anne
  • elder daughter, Clémence (with daughter Lotte)
  • younger daughter, Laura
  • son, Jean (a drug addict, subsequently reformed)
  • personal doctor to Pierre, Dr CHABROT
  • cleaner, Manuela LOPES
  • housekeeper, Violette GRELLIER (husband, Bernard, general factotum)
  • the family vacate the premises when Monsieur ARTHENS dies; (the next occupant’s identity will remain hidden to avoid a spoiler)
3rd
floor
BADOISE, Monsieur (a lawyer) and Madame
  • daughter, Diane(studying for a law degree)
  • cocker spaniel dog, Neptune
SAINT-NICE, Monsieur and Madame
2nd
floor
ROSEN, Jacinthe
  • [apartment inherited]
MEURISSES, Anne-Hélène
  • whippet dog, Athena
  • [apartment inherited when Mrs Cornélia MEURISSES died in 1989]
1st
floor
de BROGLIE, Monsieur (a State counsellor) and Madame Bernadette
Ground
floor
MICHEL, Renée (54), head concierge (position held for 27 years)
  • cat, Leo
  • deceased husband, Lucien
  • close friend of Manuela LOPES who cleans for the PALLIÈRES on the 6th floor and the ARTHENS on the 4th floor
Apartments on floors 2 and 3 are 185 m2 in size; all others are 371 m2 in size, i.e. very substantial.

Although the French guillotined most of their aristocracy over two hundred years ago, to many people’s surprise France remains as class-ridden a society as any you can find. When Barbery has her concierge meditate on “what constitutes life”, she answers that it adds “up to no more than this: hold your rank or die”. This is as good a justification for “Art” with its deliberate capital ‘A’ as Renée can think of, but it also demonstrates that her direction of travel will be to break rank, to defy convention and refuse to conform to social norms. In that, she has found a soul mate in the young Paloma. The latter’s own non-conformity emerges as a plan to take her own life before her thirteenth birthday. Whether she will torch the whole building in doing so, she has yet to decide.

Much of the force of the novel stems from the potential for appearances to be deceptive. Inside Renée’s grubby working clothes we are led to believe is a dazzling intellect. She has two televisions, one on public display where her employers can see her conforming to type by watching soaps, whilst another, which she watches avidly just out of view, is tuned to art programs and studio discussions with philosophers. Sabine Pallières’ inability to use commas correctly is the same thing in reverse. All varieties of subjective worlds exist under the guise of their own externalities; there is no law enforcing congruity between the two. This dichotomy engenders examination as much as humour as, upon closing a book on Husserl and phenomenology, Renée observes that the latter is “hardcore autism”!

The appeal of the novel is not just to our intellect. It is also to our senses — our eyes and our ears — and to our emotions. A fine instance of this is just after Renée is told that Pierre Arthens has died, the first in her building to cause an apartment to be vacated and occupied afresh without the agency of inheritance. She is “tormented by the darkness of these unhappy events”:

When all of a sudden old Japan intervenes: from one of the apartments wafts a melody, clearly, joyfully, distinct. Someone is playing a classical piece on the piano. Ah, sweet, impromptu moment, lifting the veil of melancholy … A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings … while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallised in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither plans nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart. (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, p. 102)

In another glorious episode, Renée has sought “refuge” in Anna Karenina, in the scene when Levin goes off with peasants to mow the fields. It is impossible work which he’s not used to. He is on the point of giving up when the old peasant leading the row calls for a rest, which they take, before resuming their labour in due course. Just as the holding of the scythe becomes yet again tortuous, and Levin’s shoulder muscles ache beyond his imagining, they are called to rest by the old man once more. So it goes on until the advancing peasants finish the task. So it is with writing “this ridiculous journal of an ageing concierge”, confides Renée. The writing, she suggests, has “something of the art of scything about it”:

The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me. (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, p. 119)

Undoubtedly, huge credit goes to the English translator Alison Anderson. (Don’t miss the photograph of her work environment on her website, which gives a new meaning to the term ‘home’ page). The text that began with Muriel Barbery’s beautiful French; came back in English as the work of a wordsmith in her own right, poised, sharp and invariably with a mature, poetic cadence.

As with all fine literature, the deeper notes in this delightful prose are the unheard ones that the text releases. We recognise the contradiction in that these crafted and polished words are from the uneducated narrator whose more habitual tools should be keys, lightbulbs and brushes. As emotions can catch any of us unawares at any moment, there is nothing discordant about Barbery/Anderson giving Renée such perception. The French revere (most of) their philosophers, but which of Barbery’s Anglophone audience would be the first to deny this concierge her unexpected outlook? This apparent incongruity is fuel for animated debate. (Would any concierge speak like this?) Do we welcome or resist the resonance that such contradictions may cause? For resonance there is plenty, particularly as the book nears its surprise conclusion, when Renée reflects on the loss of her sister Lisette during her own distant childhood. It is a highlight of the novel, heart-breaking, rain-drenched, aflood with emotion as if the writer were recounting something not imagined but real. It is in some measure an explanation as to why Renée chose a “clandestine” existence. It also marks the moment when Renée and the young Paloma form an unbreakable bond. I’ll leave you to discover it, unquoted here.

The humble concierge may be something of a dying breed in Paris. Digital entry keys and faceless, off-site management companies have been replacing them for years. Their working hours are long, their pay is derisory, pensions minable, and tenure precarious. When they are shoved out, Paris has inadequate low-cost housing for them. As many are Portuguese, like Renée’s friend Manuela Lopes, they may head south if they still have family there. Muriel Barbery touches on these issues only by inference in this moving, multi-layered novel which brings out of deep shade a credible, fictional character who tolerates full sunlight unflinchingly, seemingly exemplifying the Socratic view that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

[The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]