The Hedgehog, based on The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French novelist Muriel Barbery, opens in movie theaters this Friday. Directed by Mona Achache, it chronicles a friendship between a lonely and precocious girl who befriends her building's curmudgeonly concierge. If you're interested in my review of the book, you can read it after the jump.
Friendship, Honesty, and Art
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
The fact that this beautifully translated and extremely moving book is available to us at all is a miracle in itself, given the dearth of literature that makes its way to this side of the Atlantic. In contrast to our often anti-intellectual cultural priorities, France actually has book discussion shows that receive top ratings. Fancy that!
Not that this novel is particularly kind to modern-day French society. In fact, both of its heroines—a dour middle-aged concierge and a preteen girl who lives in her ritzy building—are misanthropes, hiding their considerable intellectual gifts and refined aesthetic tastes to fit into a mundane world where they perceive few kindred spirits. The adolescent, Paloma, is a fountain of aperçus like "people aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl" and "if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It's just more comfortable."
Paloma keeps a diary of "profound thoughts," and while expounding on them she skewers the pretensions of everyone from relatives to family friends to her mother's psychiatrist. She is also contemplating suicide: "Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options: If I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I'll think that life is worth living after all."
Renée, the Tolstoy-reading, Mahler-listening, Ozu-watching concierge, calls herself a "proletarian autodidact" and "a slave to vocabulary." As the novel begins, her only friend is a cleaning woman from Portugal. "When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic."
With poignancy and eloquence, the novel's alternating narratives illuminate the age-old philosophical question of what gives meaning to life. In Howards End, E.M. Forster said it in two words: "only connect." The tragicomic manner in which the lives of Paloma and Renée converge and evolve is a source of enormous satisfaction for the reader. In the end, the book we hold in our hands reflects its characters' search for enduring value and provides for us what ultimately sustains them: the bliss of an exquisitely fashioned work of art that comes directly from the heart.
"I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song." (Paloma)"The tea ritual … has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed." (Renée)