Muriel Barbery, L’élégance du hérisson (French, 2006)

First of all, you must be aware that I’ve resisted for a while before writing  anything nasty about this book. Proper book blog etiquette seems to demand restraint and politeness when dealing with a book one dislikes. Some even state that bloggers should just talk about books they like and not write any disparaging review. But what’s a girl to do when all she wants during her reading is to throw the thing across the room? (a milder version than tearing pages apart and throwing them down into the river Seine…) 

In short, this book reminded me of all the reasons why I have prejudices against my fellow countrymen’s literature: snobbishness veiled in good feelings, no plot, two-dimensional characters as pretext for philosophy and class prejudice. I struggle against my own prejudice, but here I am, back to square one. This story has been a huge success last year and there were weeks where all the people reading in the metro were carrying this book. I don’t get it. And no, I’m not jealous. 

The two main characters live in the same upper-class building in Paris: on one hand a female caretaker, fiftyish widow whose look meets all the clichés of her profession: ugly, gruff and low-class; on the other a privileged, slightly depressive 12-year-old brat. The story is alternately told by one and the other. The author’s point is that there is more to people than mere appearances: the caretaker and the brat are actually highly-sensitive intellectuals just hiding away under a clichéd disguise because people around them don’t understand them. The young brat loves haiku and just pretends to sulk, the caretaker reads Kant on the sly, with her TV blaring out cheap music. Until the day when a wealthy Japanese man comes to live in the building, sees through them and appreciate their true worth. 

My main problem is that the reversal of clichés is only limited to the two main characters. All others around them are wealthy, superficial, snobbish bourgeois. What is it with my fellow countrymen to like so much spitting on the upper-class? Since they’re bourgeois, their taste is vulgar and they’re unable to look at the world and appreciate its beauty. On the contrary, caretakers are so much more human and sensitive. Gosh… this got me really angry. The only nice person around is the Japanese outsider, but I would be tempted to say that the only acceptable way to be rich and nice in a French novel is to be exotic, and Mr. Ozu fits the bill to perfection, as he arrives in the building, sophisticated and mysterious, with his bonsais and his wisdom in tow. 

The two main characters may be described as highly intelligent (the reader is supposed to be impressed by a few deep thoughts about Kant and haikus), but they strike me as nasty and ungenerous as well. They hate the people around and never try to go beyond mere appearances, while complaining that others treat them the same. They also have a tendency to preach and distil their knowledge in a very superior way. I really couldn’t commiserate with them. 

I don’t know whether a translation into English is in preparation. I’d say that it wouldn’t appeal to the English-speaking world in the same way as in France. I’ve never read American or British novels that ridicule rich people in the same systematic way: to take a light subject, I remember Sophie Kinsella’s funny satire of rich lawyers and parvenus in The Undomestic Goddess, but the lawyers weren’t criticized because of their class but because of their obsession with work, parvenus were suitably vulgar and superficial, but they were generous too. Sometimes I think French people still do have a problem with the Revolution, even more than 200 years afterwards…

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13 thoughts on “Muriel Barbery, L’élégance du hérisson (French, 2006)

  1. How intriguing – because I was given this book for Christmas! Well, in fact that makes it more interesting to read because I think it’s hard for me to see this kind of thing in a French novel. Literary criticism is fine to do in a foreign language, but I find it harder to spot prejudice and two-dimensionality. It will be very interesting to monitor my response to this novel as I read it, with your commentary in mind.

    Oh and I keep meaning to ask you whether you know the writer Louise Lambrichs? Her novel A ton image, is one of my best ever books, but hardly anyone has ever heard of her.

  2. Litlove, I’ll be looking forward to your own analysis! I don’t mean to discourage you from reading this book, you have to make your own opinion. Btw, I don’t know Louise Lambrichs, I will check her out.

  3. Your review makes me extremely curious to read this one for myself and see what I think. I suspect the cliché of the Japanese man might raise the alarm bell for me as well.

    Your mention of plot made me laugh. It’s true that most of the French novels I read have much less plot than contemporary novels in English. Although we could argue the reverse that anglophones are unwilling to read a quieter, more philosophical story. …. A happy medium would be nice 🙂

  4. I only learnt about this book when a friend and neighbour commented it in about the same way as you do. Apparently, the author seems to be using her characters’ high intellectual level to boast indirectly about her own

  5. Verbivore, it’s rare to find a balance between plot and philosophy, that’s why I just alternate books with different approach: after Barbery, an exciting plot-oriented thriller!

    Mandarine, I’m happy not to be the only one with this opinion. It’s hard to go against the tide when it comes to literary fashion!

  6. Funny you don’t see the generosity in the two main characters…?
    How about being and seing positive in things.
    Do you really think than the author’s goal is to boast her own intellectual level? Why feel threatened? After reading the book, I felt like going out and meeting good people. It is not about being smart but it’s about being good and generous with one another without judgment.
    V

  7. I remembered you had written about this book and wanted to come back and say that my book group is going to read it later this year. The English version just came out. So we’ll see how it goes! Two of us will read it in French and the rest in English – should add another dimension to the discussion.

  8. VH, I still disagree, but if the book put you in a good and generous mood, that’s already a good point to its credit!

    Verbivore, I hope you’ll enjoy it more than I did. I look forward to reading your impression on your blog!

  9. Hum,
    I read it and cried though the whole book. Must be cultural. The comments I read here seem to miss the point completely, like looking at a Picasso and saying: “hey, why is the nose of the character so badly painted”.
    Stay away of the book if you don’t enjoy it. It is the deepest book on the human condition (in my culture at least) that I ever read. My daughter, 20 says her friends don’t like it because it is too complicated. Don’t read, go to the movies instead, there are plenty of movies for teenagers.

  10. … Oh … reminds me of a NYT critic of the movie “In Bruges.” Completely missed the point… Yes French people are snobbish… But being snobbish is a good way to let oneself be attracted to other values. Otherwise you stick with your and and never try sushi or caviar, or grasshoppers.
    Happy meal…

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