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Richmond Heights Book Club: Empty Philosophy Depletes Barbery's 'Hedgehog'

Muriel Barbery's novel about a concierge at an upper-class apartment house comes with plenty of needless baggage.

When the English translation of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was released in 2008, it had already been a publishing phenomenon in France.  Many American critics were effusive with praise, marking it as literary, philosophical and sophisticated. It circulates regularly at the library and has a passionate fanbase.

So why did the ’s Book Club dislike it so?

Our responses included open disdain on one end and a form of mild, reluctant apologetics—“It’s not all that bad”—at the other. But no one responded particularly warmly to the work as a whole, much less praised or endorsed it.

We did universally enjoy one aspect of it: the central story of the main character, a concierge at an upper-class apartment house, who comes out of her shell in response to a new tenant. This portion of the story is warm, simple and subtly written.

Story about a concierge pairs frame story with essays
Unfortunately, the whole of it could have been covered in 40 pages. That makes the book an excellent little novella carrying five times its weight in problematic baggage.

Most of that baggage comes in the form of two-page essays on a variety of topics in areas of cultural criticism, aesthetics, philosophy (more on that later) and human nature. While a smattering of these essays are fairly good, most are flawed, individually and much more so cumulatively. 

The rather good frame story for these essays is fairly simple. A concierge obsessed with appearing to be a bland and prickly simpleton is secretly a brilliant, well-read aesthete.

She is the hedgehog. 

Her first-person narrative comes in short chapters that are two to four pages in length. They are interwoven with the occasional short, first-person diary entries of a 12-year-old child of privilege who also lives in the building.

This precocious genius has figured out that life has no meaning, that people are fake and that things do not get better in adulthood. So she passes the time making erudite observations about her world in her journal. She is waiting for her 13th birthday, when she plans to kill herself and burn down her apartment. 

(At least she’s considerate about it. She intends to wait until the rest of her family is not home.)

So what will happen when a new tenant—a curious, incredibly perceptive and empathetic Japanese gentleman—arrives on the scene?

Well, not much. But that is to be expected. This is not a novel of plot or action but of ideas and characters. Unfortunately, the characters are predictable and simplistic, more caricatures, and the ideas are shallow and unsupported.

Thin on philosophy, long on words
That Barbery manages to make a touching novella with her shallow characters really is a feat, and she pulls it off well. But her attempt to pad the novella into a novel with her shallow philosophies is merely disaster.

The novel fails most spectacularly in its presentation of the characters’ aesthetic and philosophical beliefs. The author does the two narrative characters no favors by making them insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed, even as they proclaim themselves to be down-to-earth and humble. It seems that every other sentence consists of the character (either of them, it makes no difference) stating how brilliant she is; how foolish and shallow the mere humans around her are; and how being alone, alone, alone is quite all right with her. 

Yes, it is precisely as insufferable as it sounds. But the ideas these two voices present can stand or fall regardless of the quality of the characters voicing them, right?

Well, yes. And mostly they fall. If read uncritically, the essays may come off as erudite, and the book is relentless in its insistence on being taken as a book of ideas. We are meant to read it as, among other things, a series of brilliant and clever essays on the nature of the world and human beings. 

But a little thought demolishes this collection of unsupported opinions, subjective aesthetic judgements and what I like to call soap-opera wisdom. The superficial essays mostly consist of the narrator staking out a position or belief, then creating a ruse of proof or support while providing irrelevant distractions at worst and obfuscatingly beautiful language at best. 

Any first-year philosophy student would laugh out loud before obliterating these essays. This is surprising, given that Barbery teaches philosophy at Université.  She tells us nothing we don’t already know and presents ideas that seem blandly true in the most pedestrian of ways.

The end of the novel evidences the lack of meaning or worth in a way that I am sure the author would claim is intentional. Barbery abruptly chops short the frame story with a surprise ending that, in hindsight, comes off as amateur and maudlin.

It is all so very angsty

A reviewer for The Telegraph put it best: “The finale is pretty sickly stuff but then Barbery's entire tale is soaked in sentimentality. What is most irritating is that it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge itself as such—hiding under a mask of philosophical fuss.”

Hedgehog's redeeming qualities: Thoughtful essays, beautiful writing
It would be unfair to characterize all the little essays as such. Some do prove interesting and provocative. The concierge’s criticism of phenomenology at the beginning of the novel comes to mind—admittedly an easy target. The use of the girl’s diary to give voice to philosophical absurdism works much better and proves more consistently satisfying. 

The writing itself, from phrase to phrase, is often beautiful and clever, even and especially when it is unreasoned. The framing novella is excellent if sentimental.  Finally, the reader has many opportunities to appreciate and reflect on the tension between one’s inner life and one’s outer expression, and to explore the disconnect between valuing depth and presenting the superficial. 

There is much—in small, isolated ways—to value in this book, even as the author risks smothering these few, delicate things she presents to the reader. 

January pick: The Boat
Next month we set out across the world with a set of wide-ranging short stories in The Boat, by Nam Le.  See our website, rhml.lib.mo.us, for details.  The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the first Tuesday of each month, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., at , 8001 Dale Ave. 

Please join us!

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