“Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up with the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy……to withdraw as far as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appendages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea, or perhaps watch a film by Ozu, and place upon this sorry theater the seal of Art and its greatest treasures.”
THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, by Muriel Barbery, is a novel about class, unhappiness and beauty. It mixes philosophies as disparate as Marx, Dutch painters, Eminen, apartment building gossips, and Mozart. It is a French novel, through and through, in its ideas (heavy on philosophy), language (multi-tiered, claused sentences), its reliance on relationship ( both grammatical and personal), and its description of middle-class quotidian. (The same quotidian that makes French movies seem as if nothing happens.)
I particularly liked the beauty parts: a yellow rose falls from a bouquet onto the counter; a pile of hot noodles; a sleeping cat; red camellias; grammar; moss on a wall in a Japanese film; the feel of a yellow bathroom carpet. Each time a character witnesses Beauty (with a Capital B) time stops, nothing matters but the moment; they feel satisfied and content about being alive and their place in the world. And because this is a thinking novel, the author asks the question: “Is this where we are doomed to live our lives? Poised between beauty and death? Between beauty’s appearance and its disappearance.
The unhappiness part twirls around a Leo Tolstoy quote, the first lines of his novel, Anna Karenina: “ All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Which leads to a need to summarize the plot: Renee is the concierge of a fancy Paris apartment on rue de Grenelle that houses rich successful families. Although incredibly intelligent and cultured, the self-educated Renee prefers to melt into the background and play dumb. Paloma, an equally intelligent and precocious twelve-year-old girl, lives in Renee’s apartment building. She attends the best school in Paris. Disgusted by the pretensions of her upper class family and neighbors, she plans to kill herself on her birthday and burn down the building. Both Renee and Paloma feel an intellectual, moral and cultural abyss between themselves and others. When a Japanese man moves into the apartment, both Renee and Paloma begin to shift from unhappy people who are rather unique into happy people who are alike in their happiness. Peel back the intellectualizing, the posturing, the criticism, the subterranean shadows in their personalities and voila! they are both suddenly capable of outright love and the appreciation of Beauty ( capital B) can be perused in friendship.
The driving force behind the author’s pen seems to be to pull apart the pretensions of the ruling elite and the mistaken oppression of the working class. In the very first chapter Renee the concierge announces as criticism of one of her tenants, in a Marxist voice: “Whoever sows desire harvests oppression.” By novel’s end the concierge is finally believing another Marxist axiom, “circumstances make men as much as men make circumstances.” So during the novel the columns holding up the bridges of both the upper classes and the working class come tumbling down. The playing field is leveled, much to the disdain and embarrassment of both sides.
Beauty, happiness and class consciousness intersect in the transformation of Paloma and Renee, who become friends and soul mates, and in doing so they end up making a pun on the Tolstoy quote which so governed the novel. Here is the pun: “All people involved in happy friendships are alike, each person without a happy friendship is different.”
In the end, the characters who people this novel blend into a community of seamlessly smiling characters who down endless glasses of tea in the concierge’s loge, who laugh and look forward to running into each other, who borrow and lend clothes, who bake and eat chocolate cakes for each other.
Afterall, the novel asks, in the words of Renee as she quotes young Paloma: what is important about measuring a life’s worth? It is Beauty, happiness, class? No. It is what we are doing at the moment of our death that measures our worth. In a true Buddhist moment, the narrator/the author says if we are able to love, if are we prepared to love, then we are alive and worthy human beings.