Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Elegance, style and disappointment

A few weeks ago, stuck in a traffic jam, I switched on the car radio for traffic news but instead I heard a few minutes of the Woman's Hour drama serial:

From the very first film I saw, flavours of Green Tea over Rice, I was fascinated by the way the Japanese use space in their lives, and by these doors that slide and mov
e quietly along invisible rails, refusing to offend space. For when we push open a door, we transform a place in a very insidious way. We offend its full extension, and introduce a disruptive and poorly proportioned obstacle. If you think about it carefully, there is nothing uglier than an open door. An open door introduces a break in the room, a sort of provincial interference, destroying the unity of space. In the adjoining room it creates a depression, an absolutely pointless gaping hole adrift in a section of wall that would have preferred to remain whole.

I looked it up as soon as I got home. It was The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson. In my usual way, I had completely missed the international splash this book made when it was published. That didn't worry me as I prefer not to read reviews until I have made up my own mind.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is, I think, an attempt to show that philosophy is not exclusively for academics and intellectuals but can be applied to everyday life. There are two narrators, conveniently distinguished in the text by the use of two different fonts. Renee is the 54-year old concierge of an exclusive apartment building on the Left Bank. While the residents see nothing but a frumpy middle-aged woman, she spends her time secretly studying works of philosophy and literature, watching Japanese films and listening to classical music. Now I will imitate the book and change to a smaller and bolder font to introduce Paloma, the 12-year old daughter of one of the richest resident families. Paloma is also a secret intellectual, confiding her profound observations on life, her interest in Japanese films and her determination to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday to her private journal.

It is easy for the reader to understand why a 12-year old girl might wish to hide her brilliance from her peers, but Renee's fear of losing her position as concierge if anyone discovers her interest in classical music, philosophy and literature presents a problem for me. However, I know nothing of the class distinctions in grand Parisian apartment blocks and must suspend my disbelief that self-improvement is grounds for dismissal in 21st century France.

Like those subtitled French films we sit through, wondering if there is time to make a cup of tea before the heroine completes her measured progress from window to door, it is slow-paced and pensive. And like those films, it has a certain quirky humour and some very odd characters.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is full of beautifully written passages like the one about Japanese doors that attracted me to it in the first place. It is a book of philosophical musings with something for everyone: tea rituals for Margaretha, wabi for Brit, camellias for me, exquisite pastries for Nan. Then there are thoughts about life and death, Art, Japanese films, civilisation, violence, the mission of literature and the efficiency of intelligence. It would be an ideal coffee table book, a sort of compendium of Philosophy for Everyman.

As a novel though, it doesn't really work. The ending is bizarre, as if the author had lost her nerve like children who fear they have been too outrageous in their story-writing and end with "And then I woke up". But it is a pleasant read (just stop at page 303) and I can imagine book-groups having a really good time picking out the passages that express their own views in a simple but profound way.


  1. I almost bought this book last week at Barne and Noble. Now I am glad I reconsidered. I'll just wait for it to come to the library. :)
    Thanks for the review.

  2. Karin, I hope you will read the library copy and then tell me what you thought of it.

  3. I found the book on the web, but I'm waiting for a fortune to land in my lap before I can buy anything other than food!
    It will be interesting to read as I don't agree with the passage about doors - I don't think doors are ugly - neither open nor closed! Sliding doors are practical when the space is limited, but that's all.

  4. Margaretha, I am interested in your opinion about doors. I like closed doors but I don't like having to arrange furniture to allow room for a door to open. Perhaps it is because the rooms in my cottage are long and narrow. Sliding doors would be a great advantage in an old Devon house.

  5. The door piece makes me think of some of the feng shui teachings, which fascinate me. And the suicide reminds me that I've read that the rate is very high in Japan.

  6. Nan, one of the apartments is bought by a wealthy Japanese man who transforms it into all that we would expect of Japanese elegance combined with the latest technology.

    I believe you are right about the high suicide rate in Japan. The girl in this book, however is French. I won't spoil the story by telling you what happens.

  7. Fascinating review, M. And the extract about closed doors triggered a chain of thoughts; it made me realise that I love open doors that lead on to something else. I am fascinated by the glimpse of what lies beyond, even if it is just the next room.

    The only interior door that is kept firmly shut in my house (and then only seasonally) is one in the sitting room - to keep in the warmth from the wood-burner during the winter.

    Then I began to think about closed doors and what they signify to me and why I might not feel comfortable with them . . . hmmmm.

  8. D, it was the prose rather than the subject that caught my attention but doors do seem to have great significance for people. It would be worth investigating, I'm sure.

  9. I heard most of this book when it was serialised on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago. I don't know, I wasn't quite sure about it, and found some of the narrative voices a little arch. I was interested to read you review I may have a go at reading it myself, just to see if my opinion changes when I don't have to rely on the BBC dramatisation.

  10. Do let me know what you think of it, DD. I only heard one bit of the reading and it made me want to read the book but I was very disappointed in it. I've been reading reviews of it since writing my notes and it was a huge hit in France and America but received rather muted reviews here.


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