We were thrust into level 4 Covid lockdown and I found myself without a book to read, and, libraries were closed. The thought of it! Thank goodness for Gabby, who said she would swap books with me. I put The Midnight Library (recently read) into a wee bag and walked (mask on) the few blocks to her letterbox and popped it inside. That afternoon, she did the same for me, and left The Elegance of the Hedgehog at my front door.
The title was intriguing. The setting was Paris, a favourite city. It didn’t take me long to start reading. Except the ruminating on Marx at the start almost made my head spin. But when the protagonist Renée introduced herself on page 15, I was hooked.
She is the most interesting character I have come across for some time. A concierge at number 7 Rue de Grenelle, overseeing eight luxury appartments, and the eight entitled families inhabiting them.
Renée describes herself as a middle-aged, short, ugly, plump widow; poor, discreet and insignificant, with the breath of a mammoth. But she is not what she seems, for behind the servant’s demeanour, a myth she delights in perpetrating, lies an erudite, philosophical, culturally astute woman. An intellectual, in one word. Alone, apart from one true friend, the delightful Portuguese maid Manuela, and a young resident Paloma Josse, who finds her family insufferable, and believes death is her only escape from a pre-destined path.
Deleted: For years Renée’s only companion is a very fat tomcat, as she acquiesces to the tenants’ demands, in the role she’s held for twenty-seven years. But when a cultured Japanese man, takes over an apartment when a resident dies, Renée’s hidden passion for culture and the arts is soon laid bare, through an inadvertent slip in conversation. Soon, Monsieur Ozu asks her to dinner, and the scenes as Manuela helps her find a dress for the occasion, are at once moving as they are funny. Yet it is the scene when Renée first enters M. Ozu’s apartment, which captured me. ‘…and here am I Renée somewhat carelessly allowing my gaze to wander beyond Monsieur Ozu and into a ray of light that is striking a little painting in a dark frame… It is a still life, representing a table laid for a light meal of bread and oysters … ‘ And this is when she reveals her amazing knowledge of art. She has recognised a Dutch master, artist Pieter Claesz.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel about class division, subjugation, philosophy, culture and the arts. It is moving. And, it is also very funny. I highly recommend this novel if you hold literature, the arts and humanity close to your heart. You may be sad at times, but you will not be disappointed.
It came as no surprise to find that the author, Muriel Barbery is also a philosophy teacher. And she clearly knows a great deal about art.
First published in France as L’élégance du hérisson by Éditions Gallimard, Paris. First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Gallic Books (Trans. Alison Anderson).