Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Boring, beautiful, pretentious, profound – all adjectives our groupies used to describe this bestselling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The author, Muriel Barbery, is French which explains quite a bit about this book.

Philosophy for a start. All French schoolchildren study philosophy, it seems, so they would all be au fait with the concepts running through the book and abstract thought. In addition, the author took a degree in philosophy – so obviously a favourite subject of hers. Therefore, when certain philosophical themes and ideas appear in the book French readers will immediately understand the gist of what Ms Barbery – or rather her middle aged protagonist, Renee - is trying to say. British readers may, instead, decide that the novel is pretentious, absurdist or surreal.

'Absurdity’ – which the young protagonist, Paloma, mentions - is the idea of putting things together that don’t make sense. But not that many British novel readers have read Satre or many of the French philosophists. And it is totally understandable if we do not grasp the philosophical appreciation of ‘beauty’ - the life saving importance of seeing a camellia flower on a bed of moss for instance – that is a central theme to the book.

The cruellest criticism made was that the philosophical rantings of Renee were that they were not simply pretentious, but ‘padding’ and boring. For the first half of the book, anyway. Another was that the story came over as spasmodic and episodic and that the author – as Renee – was intrusive. So far, not so good.

However, the language, the words, and the stylish use of them in this book is absolutely wonderful. I gloried in reading good English (fortunately it has been very well translated). One of Paloma’s profound thoughts (she has quite a few) is that “when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language”. Indeed, she finishes by saying "pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment not the beauty of language.” Now, you can see how the pretentious tag came to be coined, but it did make for beautiful writing and reading.

I had the feeling throughout the book that if only I were better read, and very clever as well, I might understand the philosophy more. Some philosophical posers (as: when is a table not a table but just an idea) were way above my head. But I thoroughly enjoyed being forced to think. I do like a book that is not just handed to me on a plate – or should it be, on a page!

Some of the characters were unbelievable, but others were so well drawn that they were recognisable types. That we should not judge people by their appearance or their occupation, is an idea that constantly needs reinforcing, for it is a trap that we all fall into too easily. And the idea of lonely people finding kindred spirits is very touching.

Was the novel a book group success? Fifty/fifty. Those that were reading it for the first time thoroughly enjoyed it, barring a few provisos. Those that were reading it for a second time were disappointed, finding it clichéd and too ‘clever’ by half. So buy The Elegance of the Hedgehog, read it, enjoy it and then give it away to someone who can enjoy it afresh.


1 comment:

Carla said...

The translator must have been remarkably skilled to carry the elegance of the prose from one language to another. And what a title! Does it have significance in the narrative?
By the sound of it, this is one that may have to wait for the Christmas bank holidays when - after the cooking and the visiting is done - I might have enough time and mental energy for the philosophy :-)