Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terrible elegant.” So writes Palomo in her journal.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The library book group will discuss Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog tonight. The book was a bestseller in France and, published in English translation in the United States in 2008, it became a favorite of book clubs here. The story alternates between the narration of twelve year old Paloma and fifty-something Renee, both very intelligent intellectuals who hide behind a veneer of ignorance for reasons of their own. They both distance themselves emotionally from almost all friendships and believe that their worlds would not appreciate their intellect. Paloma is a typical sulky teenager of mediocre achievement on the outside, her apathy and self-isolation a source of concern to her family. The reader learns from her journal of 'Profound Thoughts' that Paloma plans to kill herself before her thirteenth birthday. Her reasoning:

“The problem is that children believe what adults say and once they're adults themselves they exact their revenge by deceiving their own children. "Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is" is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realize that's not true it's too late. The mystery remains intact but all your available energy has long ago been wasted on stupid things. All that's left is to anesthetize yourself by trying to hide the fact that you can't find any meaning in your life and then the better to convince yourself you deceive your own children. ... People aim for the stars and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd. That might deprive you of a few good moments in your childhood but it would save you a considerable amount of time as an adultnot to mention the fact that you'd be spared at least one traumatic experience i.e. the goldfish bowl.” More thoughts from Paloma, the depressed teenager in
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog 

Renee Michel is the concierge of the upscale Paris apartment building where Paloma lives. Renee hides behind the facade of the stereotypical concierge, an unfriendly demeanor presented in a frumpy appearance who lives an isolated life in her little apartment with only her cat and her television for company. She hides the fact that she is very well read, loves literature, philosophy, music and the arts. Her vacant and alienating facade hides thoughts like these:

“I have finally concluded, maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that's it, an always within never.”
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The quotes are taken from the GoodReads quotations page from the book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  

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