Thursday, August 7, 2014

WITMonth Day 7 - The Elegance of the Hedgehog | Review

Most of you have, by now, heard of The Elegance of the Hedgehog (henceforth referred to as TEOTH) by Muriel Barbery (translation: Alison Anderson). It's hard not to - it was the surprise hit-in-translation of 2013. In fact, it's one of the only translated-lit success stories that's written by a woman. Hard to pass up the opportunity to discuss, no?

What's more is that TEOTH can inspire some massive debate. Just by myself, I was able to spend hours arguing points back and forth - whether the novel is simplistic or subversive, whether the focus on Japanese culture is meant comparatively or whether it's just a bizarre oversimplification, whether the pretensions of the main characters are meant to echo those of the side characters they mock or are just a marker of bad writing, etc. You'll see a lot of reviews that praise TEOTH for its focus on Art, its charm, and its warmth. You'll also see a lot of reviews that bash its pseudo-intellectualism and banality. So, you know, it can go either way.

I tend to lean more towards the pseudo-intellectualism side, but with a little less vitriol, because though I had serious issues with the book, there were parts of it that I nonetheless enjoyed.

My biggest problem with TEOTH is the ideal that occupies its entire first half (which is basically its premise). We have two narrators: Renée (a 54 year-old concierge) and Paloma (12 year-old resident of the building). Renée's narrative occupies most of the story, while Paloma's thoughts usually fill in the blanks for us. The two tones are meant, I suppose, to balance each other out - Paloma's youth versus Renée's experience. Both woman and girl are remarkably similar in their assessment of the building's wealthy residents: dismissal.

Renée is an autodidact, a point she takes great pride in yet insists upon hiding from everyone in the building. She is Cultured, quoting Tolstoy, reading Philosophy tomes, musing about Art, and name-dropping composers. All, of course, in her head. To the building's residents, she is a simple, stupid, uncultured, lazy TV addict.

There are a lot of issues with the characterizations in the book, but I have to admit that this one is probably the most harmful. Though Barbery is clearly attempting to show that bright minds can also reside in unexpected places, she is simultaneously demonizing lower classes who aren't autodidacts like Renée. Sure, there's the moment that Renée tries to make the point that she is more open than her employers (because she also watches popular films), but her whole world-view is utterly skewed towards a judgmental, pretentious belief that culture can be easily defined.

Truthfully, this pretension is not uncommon, and it's hard to tell whether Barbery is attempting to deconstruct it (poorly), or is utterly oblivious to its implications. Renée is a character who spends most of the book utterly degrading her employers for their airs, but herself puts them on. She also judges them for seeing her as the character she has built. There's a clear hypocrisy in the story - Paloma's mother is mocked for her "Socialism", but the fact that Renée reads Marx to build her mind is somehow meant to be noble.

Both Paloma and Renée are much less clever than they think. Paloma - like many "precocious" young characters - is at least redeemed by the fact that she does occasionally act and sound like a child her age. For the most part, however, both characters walk around with a self-assurance in their abilities that is never backed up by their behavior. Renée may read and may glean pleasure from Art, but we see her dismissing any academic study of it, and she never really shows us a deeper understanding (which, quite frankly, would have been more obnoxious than her existing pretension, but would have at least justified her cockiness).

This has been a long introduction to basically say: Renée and Paloma are full of themselves.

There's a bit of the "special snowflake" effect to the whole book. Our three main characters (Renée, Paloma, and the late-introduced Kakuro Ozu) all ascribe to the idea of hidden brilliance. Mr Ozu is admired by the other residents for his wealth, but Renée and Paloma clearly see beneath that to his artistic side. Renée of course is hiding all of her unique abilities and her special knowledge, and Paloma is a self-proclaimed genius.

Hmm.

For lack of a better term, TEOTH is kind of a douchey book. It's got "charm" (rather, swagger), it's got cleverness (or is it?), and it's got a heap-load of hypocrisy.

So what words of praise could I possibly have for it? Turns out, quite a few.

First of all, though I don't think Barbery necessarily intended for this level of thought, but the hypocrisy displayed by Renée and Paloma actually goes a long way further in emphasizing modern class distinctions than the actual explicit references. The fact that Renée should only be judged intelligent by a very narrow definition of culture is exactly the opposite of everything she espouses. Meanwhile, Paloma bemoans the banality of her older sister's life, while engaging in equally cliched behavior herself. Whether intentionally or not, Barbery does inspire quite a bit of thought on matters of class, social standing, culture and self-importance.

Even the problematic matter of Barbery's gushing descriptions of Japanese culture - as non-French readers, we can certainly learn from this our own tendency to grossly glamorize other cultures. The irony that so many reviews have referred to TEOTH as so very French is only strengthened. Again, it doesn't seem like this was a directed effort on Barbery's part, but the unintended side-effect is actually quite interesting.

Finally, a confession: I liked the last part of the book. I liked the fairly silly role Mr. Ozu played in the story, and the more I think about it, the more I liked the awfully frustrating ending (which I believe was meant to be subversive, so there's a legitimately earned point for Barbery...). It's not brilliant, but it's a pleasant read and I found myself reading the second half of the book quite energetically (certainly more than the first half, which was a bit of a slog).

Is this a bad book? No. But it's a deeply problematic one. I can think of many readers who will find the class discussions interesting as is, and others who will appreciate both Renée and Paloma as characters. There's a reason the book has been so popular in so many places around the world, but reasons for the harsh backlash as well. Basically, literature proves complex. Once again.

2 comments:

  1. Being French, I really liked a lot what Barbery did with Renée. In France, "concierge", which has basically nothing to do with what we call concierges in the US, have that reputation of being very superficial and extremely nosy people, as I highlighted n my won review some years ago. Most feel only contempt towards them. So it was interesting to have Renée displaying the façade of what a concierge is for most people, but at the same time proving to me someone so much deeper and having such a vast culture.
    Another point: Muriel lives in Asia and I believe enjoys a lot the Japanese culture. I only felt her love of it in this book.
    Other" Have you tried her Gourmet Rhapsody? Much shorter, but with common characters. Well done, it made me feel hungry all along!

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    Replies
    1. That's a really interesting (if somewhat bizarre) point about concierges! It's sort of sad to see that a stereotype could be so pervasive it sparks the entire premise for a book. I'm still not a fan of the characterization, but it certainly casts Barbery's style into a different light. Definitely thought-provoking.

      As for the Japanese culture, I think it's clear she has a great appreciation for it, but it still felt a little... sanitized. This is a culture I am very familiar with, and seeing it presented as this sort of ideal frustrated me.

      I haven't read Gourmet Rhapsody - I may give it a try at some point. I've heard good things about its foodie side!

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