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 clich├ęd 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.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

Writing Research - starting and stopping

Writing a book takes time. Writing a blog takes time. Writing a blog does not take a fraction of the time it takes to write a book. Nevertheless, it takes time. And every minute I can spare I need to concentrate on my manuscript. So even an hour spent writing a blog is an hour not spent 'writing'.

So I hope this explains why I haven’t written a blog for nearly three weeks now. But I have decided that if I am going to write a blog I should do it regularly or not at all. So here I am. And this blog is in the form of a reminder to myself.

I have to watch myself with my writing: my trouble has been getting sidelined – not only by blogs – by research. Writing my book might go like this:
1. Research
2. Synopsis
3. Draft
4. Another draft
5. Which brings up the need for more research
4. Another draft
6. Which touches on things not researched. More research
7. Rejigging draft
8 Complete reorganization of chapters
9 Which brings up the need to bridge and things not researched. More research

And when the research is fascinating, illuminating or even bizarre it is such fun that far too much time is spent on it instead of writing. I have now had to make rules for myself. Here is the latest: finish writing the last five chapters that are only sketched. Then one more complete read through what I’ve done - making corrections and refining as I go. And only then will I check any more facts which may bring up the need for a little more research.

I have set myself a time limit to finish whatever. This is really necessary because getting the ms ready to send out takes quite a lot of time and waiting for it to come back takes even longer. The final draft needs to be printed without any mistakes, it must look the biz, and as at the moment I am between agents (in other words I don’t have one to ‘sell it’ for me) it needs a good letter with it.

But time spent researching is not my only problem. My little study is now so packed with books, drafts, print outs, photographs, pens, paper, filing, files, piles, piles of piles that I have to ease myself in between it all to sit at my computer. I know I should tidy up, but tidying up takes time, and it’s time I begrudge spending when I could be writing.

And then there are those other things that keep getting in the way. Work and jobs. Earning a crust and making the bread: other responsibilities. It must be absolute luxury and a joy to be able to work nine to five writing. No distractions, no demands, just tap, tap, tap until it’s done. But to do that one needs a good advance. And that is not going to happen this time round so I better just get stuck in and stop researching.


PS I have often been told by aspiring novelists that they have trouble ‘starting’. But I think there is a simple remedy to this. Just do it. Write down any old thing. Content is immaterial at this point. After you’ve written a few pages you’ve started. Simples! What is more difficult is knowing when to stop!