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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Автор Muriel Barbery

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Автор Muriel Barbery

3/5 (3 677 оценки)
341 страница
5 часов
2 сент. 2008 г.


The phenomenal New York Times bestseller that “explores the upstairs-downstairs goings-on of a posh Parisian apartment building” (Publishers Weekly).

In an elegant hôtel particulier in Paris, Renée, the concierge, is all but invisible—short, plump, middle-aged, with bunions on her feet and an addiction to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she’s everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in an upscale neighborhood. But Renée has a secret: She furtively, ferociously devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor, she scrutinizes the lives of the tenants—her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.

Paloma is a twelve-year-old who lives on the fifth floor. Talented and precocious, she’s come to terms with life’s seeming futility and decided to end her own on her thirteenth birthday. Until then, she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop culture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide their true talents and finest qualities from a world they believe cannot or will not appreciate them. But after a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building, they will begin to recognize each other as kindred souls, in a novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us, and “teaches philosophical lessons by shrewdly exposing rich secret lives hidden beneath conventional exteriors” (Kirkus Reviews).

“The narrators’ kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson’s fluent translation) propel us ahead.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Barbery’s sly wit . . . bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations.” —The New Yorker
2 сент. 2008 г.

Об авторе

Muriel Barbery is a former lecturer in philosophy and the bestselling author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and been described by Le Figaro as ‘the publishing phenomenon of the decade’.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

Europa Editions

116 East 16th Street

New York, NY 10003



This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2006 by Editions Gallimard, Paris

First publication 2008 by Europa Editions

Translation by Alison Anderson

   Original title: L'élégance du herisson

Translation copyright 2008 by Europa Editions

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

This work, published as part of a program providing publication assistance, received financial support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States and FACE (French American Cultural Exchange).

Cover/Emanuele Ragnisco


Cover photo © Randy Faris/Corbis

ISBN 9781609450137

Muriel Barbery


Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

For Stéphane, with whom I wrote this book



1. Whosoever Sows Desire

Marx has completely changed the way I view the world," declared the Pallières boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me.

Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite—a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups—beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to. How could the laboring classes understand Marx? Reading Marx is an arduous task, his style is lofty, the prose is subtle and the thesis complex.

And that is when I very nearly—foolishly—gave myself away.

"You ought to read The German Ideology," I told him. Little cretin in his conifer green duffle coat.

To understand Marx and understand why he is mistaken, one must read The German Ideology. It is the anthropological cornerstone on which all his exhortations for a new world would be built, and on which a sovereign certainty is established: mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire, would do better to confine itself to its own needs. In a world where the hubris of desire has been vanquished, a new social organization can emerge, cleansed of struggle, oppression and deleterious hierarchies.

Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression, I nearly murmured, as if only my cat were listening to me.

But Antoine Pallières, whose repulsive and embryonic whiskers have nothing the least bit feline about them, is staring at me, uncertain of my strange words. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble. Concierges do not read The German Ideology; hence, they would certainly be incapable of quoting the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. Moreover, a concierge who reads Marx must be contemplating subversion, must have sold her soul to that devil, the trade union. That she might simply be reading Marx to elevate her mind is so incongruous a conceit that no member of the bourgeoisie could ever entertain it.

Say hello to your mother, I murmur as I close the door in his face, hoping that the complete dissonance between my two sentences will be veiled by the might of millennial prejudice.

2. The Miracles of Art

My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big, lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species. Because I am rarely friendly—though always polite—I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. And since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so has it been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions covered with crocheted cases.

Similarly, it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup, or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie—the State Councilor on the first floor—intervened (an intervention he described to his wife as being courteous but firm, whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance.

That was twenty-seven years ago. Since then, I have gone every day to the butcher’s to buy a slice of ham or some calf’s liver, which I slip into my net bag between my packet of noodles and my bunch of carrots. I then obligingly flaunt these pauper’s victuals—now much improved by the noteworthy fact that they do not smell—because I am a pauper in a house full of rich people and this display nourishes both the consensual cliché and my cat Leo, who has become rather large by virtue of these meals that should have been mine, and who stuffs himself liberally and noisily with macaroni and butter, and pork from the delicatessen, while I am free—without any olfactory disturbances or anyone suspecting a thing—to indulge my own culinary proclivities.

Far more irksome was the issue of the television. In my late husband’s day, I did go along with it, for the constancy of his viewing spared me the chore of watching. From the hallway of the building you could hear the sound of the thing, and that sufficed to perpetuate the charade of social hierarchy, but once Lucien had passed away I had to think hard to find a way to keep up appearances. Alive, he freed me from this iniquitous obligation; dead, he has deprived me of his lack of culture, the indispensable bulwark against other people’s suspicions.

I found a solution thanks to a non-buzzer.

A chime linked to an infrared mechanism now alerts me to the comings and goings in the hallway, which has eliminated the need for anyone to buzz to notify me of their presence if I happen to be out of earshot. For on such occasions I am actually in the back room, where I spend most of my hours of leisure and where, sheltered from the noise and smells that my condition imposes, I can live as I please, without being deprived of the information vital to any sentry: who is coming in, who is going out, with whom, and at what time.

Thus, the residents going down the hall would hear the muffled sounds indicating a television was on, and as they tend to lack rather than abound in imagination, they would form a mental image of the concierge sprawled in front of her television set. As for me, cozily installed in my lair, I heard nothing but I knew that someone was going by. So I would go to the adjacent room and peek through the spy-hole located opposite the stairway and, well hidden behind the white net curtains, I could inquire discreetly as to the identity of the passerby.

With the advent of videocassettes and, subsequently, the DVD divinity, things changed radically, much to the enrichment of my happy hours. As it is not terribly common to come across a concierge waxing ecstatic over Death in Venice or to hear strains of Mahler wafting from her loge, I delved into my hard-earned conjugal savings and bought a second television set that I could operate in my hideaway. Thus, the television in the front room, guardian of my clandestine activities, could bleat away and I was no longer forced to listen to inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam—I was in the back room, perfectly euphoric, my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art.

Profound Thought No. 1

Follow the stars

In the goldfish bowl

An end

Apparently, now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is. They complain without understanding and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they don’t want to go. The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence! Cynics of this kind frequently dine at Papa’s table: What has become of the dreams of our youth? they ask, with a smug, disillusioned air. Those years are long gone, and life’s a bitch. I despise this false lucidity that comes with age. The truth is that they are just like everyone else: nothing more than kids without a clue about what has happened to them, acting big and tough when in fact all they want is to burst into tears.

And yet there’s nothing to understand. 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.

All our family acquaintances have followed the same path: their youth spent trying to make the most of their intelligence, squeezing their studies like a lemon to make sure they’d secure a spot among the elite, then the rest of their lives wondering with a flabbergasted look on their faces why all that hopefulness has led to such a vain existence. 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 adult—not to mention the fact that you’d be spared at least one traumatic experience, i.e. the goldfish bowl.

I am twelve years old, I live at 7, rue de Grenelle in an apartment for rich people. My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore, as good as rich. My father is a parliamentarian and before that he was a minister: no doubt he’ll end up in the top spot, emptying out the wine cellar of the residence at the Hôtel de Lassay. As for my mother . . . Well, my mother isn’t exactly a genius but she is educated. She has a PhD in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references (Colombe, stop trying to act like Madame Guermantes, or Pumpkin, you are a regular Sanseverina).

Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a very long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. Even now, if you look at children my age, there’s an abyss between us. And since I don’t really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family—an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace—I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior in college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are. But, in a way, this does keep me from dying of boredom: all the time I don’t need to spend learning and understanding I use to imitate the ordinary good pupils—the way they do things, the answers they give, their progress, their concerns and their minor errors. I read everything that Constance Baret writes—she is second in the class—all her math and French and history and that way I find out what I have to do: for French a string of words that are coherent and spelled correctly; for math the mechanical reproduction of operations devoid of meaning; and for history a list of events joined by logical connections. But even if you compare me to an adult, I am much smarter than the vast majority. That’s the way it is. I’m not particularly proud of this because it’s not my doing. But one thing is sure—there’s no way I’m going to end up in the goldfish bowl. I’ve thought this through quite carefully. Even for someone like me who is supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority—even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.

So I’ve made up my mind. I am about to leave childhood behind and, in spite of my conviction that life is a farce, I don’t think I can hold out to the end. We are, basically, programmed to believe in something that doesn’t exist, because we are living creatures; we don’t want to suffer. So we spend all our energy persuading ourselves that there are things that are worthwhile and that that is why life has meaning. I may be very intelligent, but I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to struggle against this biological tendency. When I join the adults in the rat race, will I still be able to confront this feeling of absurdity? I don’t think so. That is why I’ve made up my mind: at the end of the school year, on the day I turn thirteen, June sixteenth , I will commit suicide. Careful now, I have no intention of making a big deal out of it, as if it were an act of bravery or defiance. Besides, it’s in my best interest that no one suspect a thing. Adults have this neurotic relationship with death, it gets blown out of all proportion, they make a huge deal out of it when in fact it’s really the most banal thing there is. What I care about, actually, is not the thing in itself, but the way it’s done. My Japanese side, obviously, is inclined toward seppuku. When I say my Japanese side, what I mean is my love for Japan. I’m in the eighth grade so, naturally, I chose Japanese as my second foreign language. The teacher isn’t great, he swallows his words in French and spends his time scratching his head as if he were puzzled, but the textbook isn’t bad and since the start of the year I’ve made huge progress. I hope in a few months to be able to read my favorite manga in the original. Maman doesn’t understand why a little-girl-as-gifted-as-you-are wants to read manga. I haven’t even bothered to explain to her that manga in Japanese doesn’t mean anything more than comic book. She thinks I’m high on subculture and I haven’t set her straight on that. In short, in a few months I might be able to read Taniguchi in Japanese. But back to what we were talking about: I’ll have to do it before June sixteenth because on June sixteenth I’m committing suicide. But not seppuku. It would be full of significance and beauty but . . . well . . . I really have no desire to suffer. In fact, I would hate to suffer; I think that if you have decided to die, it is precisely because your decision is in the nature of things, so you must do it in a gentle way. Dying must be a delicate passage, a sweet slipping away to rest. There are people who commit suicide by jumping out of the window of the fourth floor or swallowing bleach or even hanging themselves! That’s senseless! Obscene, even. What is the point of dying if not to not suffer? I’ve devoted great care to planning how I’ll exit the scene: every month for the last year I’ve been pilfering a sleeping pill from Maman’s box on the night table. She takes so many that she wouldn’t even notice if I took one every day, but I’ve decided to be particularly careful. You can’t leave anything to chance when you’ve made a decision that most people won’t understand. You can’t imagine how quickly people will get in the way of your most heartfelt plans, in the name of such trifles as the meaning of life or love of mankind. Oh and then there is the sacred nature of childhood.

Therefore, I am headed slowly toward the date of June sixteenth and I’m not afraid. A few regrets, maybe. But the world, in its present state, is no place for princesses. Having said that, simply because you’ve made plans to die doesn’t mean you have to vegetate like some rotting piece of cabbage. Quite the contrary. The main thing isn’t about dying or how old you are when you die, it’s what you are doing the moment you die. In Taniguchi the heroes die while climbing Mount Everest. Since I haven’t the slightest chance of taking a stab at K2 or the Grandes Jorasses before June sixteenth, my own personal Everest will be an intellectual endeavor. I have set as my goal to have the greatest number possible of profound thoughts, and to write them down in this notebook: even if nothing has any meaning, the mind, at least, can give it a shot, don’t you think? But since I have this big thing about Japan, I’ve added one requirement: these profound thoughts have to be formulated like a little Japanese poem: either a haiku (three lines) or a tanka (five lines).

My favorite haiku is by Basho.

The fisherman’s hut

Mixed with little shrimp

Some crickets!

Now that’s no goldfish bowl, is it, that’s what I call poetry!

But in the world I live in there is less poetry than in a Japanese fisherman’s hut. And do you think it is normal for four people to live in four thousand square feet when tons of other people, perhaps some poètes maudits among them, don’t even have a decent place to live and are crammed together fifteen or twenty in two hundred square feet? When, this summer, I heard on the news that some Africans had died because a fire had started in the stairway of their run-down tenement, I had an idea. Those Africans have the goldfish bowl right there in front of them, all day long—they can’t escape through storytelling. But my parents and Colombe are convinced they’re swimming in the ocean just because they live in their four thousand square feet with their piles of furniture and paintings.

So, on June sixteenth I intend to refresh their pea-brain memories: I’m going to set fire to the apartment (with the barbecue lighter). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a criminal: I’ll do it when there’s no one around (the sixteenth of June is a Saturday and on Saturdays Colombe goes to see Tibère, Maman is at yoga, Papa is at his club and as for me, I stay home), I’ll evacuate the cats through the window and I’ll call the fire department early enough so that there won’t be any victims. And then I’ll go off quietly to Grandma’s with my pills, to sleep.

With no more apartment and no more daughter, maybe they’ll give some thought to all those dead Africans, don’t you suppose?


1. An Aristocrat

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Manuela, my only friend, comes for tea with me in my loge. Manuela is a simple woman and twenty years wasted stalking dust in other people’s homes has in no way robbed her of her elegance. Besides, stalking dust is a very euphemistic way to put it. But where the rich are concerned, things are rarely called by their true name.

I empty wastebaskets full of sanitary napkins, she says, with her gentle, slightly hissing accent. I wipe up dog vomit, clean the bird cage—you’d never believe the amount of poop such tiny animals can make—and I scrub the toilets. You talk about dust? A fine affair!

You must understand that when she comes down to see me at two in the afternoon, on Tuesdays after the Arthens, and on Thursdays after the de Broglies, Manuela has been polishing the toilets with a Q-tip, and though they may be gilded with gold leaf, they are just as filthy and reeking as any toilets on the planet, because if there is one thing the rich do share with the poor, however unwillingly, it is their nauseating intestines that always manage to find a place to free themselves of that which makes them stink.

So Manuela deserves our praise. Although she’s been sacrificed at the altar of a world where the most thankless tasks have been allotted to some women while others merely hold their noses without raising a finger, she nevertheless strives relentlessly to maintain a degree of refinement that goes far beyond any gold leaf gilding, a fortiori of the sanitary variety.

When you eat a walnut, you must use a tablecloth, says Manuela, removing from her old shopping bag a little hamper made of light wood in which some almond tuiles are nestled among curls of carmine tissue paper. I make coffee that we shall not drink, but its wafting odor delights us both, and in silence we sip a cup of green tea as we nibble on our tuiles.

Just as I am a permanent traitor to my archetype, so is Manuela: to the Portuguese cleaning woman she is a felon oblivious of her condition. This girl from Faro, born under a fig tree after seven siblings and before six more, forced in childhood to work the fields and scarcely out of it to marry a mason and take the road of exile, mother of four children who are French by birthright but whom society looks upon as thoroughly Portuguese—this girl from Faro, as I was saying, who wears the requisite black support stockings and a kerchief on her head, is an aristocrat. An authentic one, of the kind whose entitlement you cannot contest: it is etched onto her very heart, it mocks titles and people with handles to their names. What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied

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  • Like Proust, but if Proust was fun and actually wrote in an accessible manner. This unexpected hit is a philosophical treatise on the importance of art that dives deep into the internal lives of its eccentric main characters. (Hedgehogs are present only in metaphors, of course.) Pairs well with the above "My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry."

    Scribd Editors

Отзывы читателей

  • (5/5)
    Because I have spent an entire month discussing Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery with all the lovelies who participate in the book club (hosted by me & Allison), I’m going to sum it up here quickly.Renee is a concierge at a condominium building in France. She’s super smart, but since she was born poor and doesn’t have a formal education, she spends her life tricking her residents into thinking she’s dull. This works. . . for a while.Then we have a teenage girl who is going to commit suicide but only after she gets all of her amazingly intelligent thoughts out on paper.For the full review, visit Love at First Book
  • (5/5)
  • (2/5)
    Not too enamored of this one.
  • (3/5)
    This is the best book I have read so far this year. It is a funny book with a philosophical vein and lots of "insider" humor and references to long standing philosophical questions. You have to love a book that can use the word autodidact... This summary can be found on Amazon.com. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknown to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
  • (5/5)
    I found this book to be a beautiful well-written fable-like story. It was very unusual but at the same time clever and witty. The main characters are two intellectuals. Renee Michel is a 54 year-old concierge in a Parisian apartment house. She decides to become what society expects her to be. Paloma Jesse is a 12 year-old resident who merely wants to be average but she decides she's going to commit suicide on her 13th birthday because she thinks life is meaningless. When Kakuro Ono, a Japanese businessman, moves in their 3-way friendship causes Renee and Paloma to see life differently. The book is mainly about relationships and having people in our lives that make us feel comfortable to be ourselves and not what other people expect us to be. It also teaches us to find those special moments that give us a reason to live. I found myself really enjoying the ending and would have to say that looking back on the book it was very thought provoking. I would highly recommend this novel to those who love books that make you think about the meaning of life.
  • (4/5)
    Life can change in an instant. You see the great abyss. You have it all figured out. And then suddenly, it seems, your outlook, your life, changes profoundly. It changes because the love and respect others have for you and because you begin to see into the hearts of others.

    For a little while I was glad to be among those who can appreciate some of the references to philosophical concepts, classic art, and highfalutin vocabulary. In spite of this distraction of erudite references and learned vocabulary I enjoyed the story very much and might very well read the book again in a few years, maybe more slowly.
  • (5/5)
    This book is FANTASTIC. I love the characters and the way they tell their stories, interweaving their journal entries.
  • (4/5)
    Everyone had something worthwhile to say about this month’s book. In fact, it took us a whole sixty minutes of discussion before we came to the mostly unanimous opinion that this is a great book and a most enjoyable read.The story itself was not a new one … social misfit takes a chance and opens her life to others with positive outcomes. But the characters, and there are many … Renee, Paloma, Ozu and the many tenants, provide an extremely entertaining and profoundly relevant situation that struck a chord with our group. We all found something of interest in this human web of relationships. Nancy picked out Renee’s reverse snobbery, Viti the conjuncture of old and young, and Lorna mentioned the pigeonholing of people which we all believed to be a pronounced theme throughout.It was mentioned that as a translation this book may have lost something, but generally it was decided that the philosophical nature of the story came through and touched us with a good balance of what is needed for a worthwhile novel. Our group is not normally easy to please but Hedgehog draws on a poignant veneer of life that satisfied the discerning reader in all of us.
  • (2/5)
    A very witty and philosophical concierge character, though verging slightly on the burlesque and cliché. Paralell narratives, paralell protagonists, two apparently opposite / conflicting world views coming together. Still, there's this underlying and pervasive sense of negativity and a thoroughly depressing tone across the whole story (confirmed by the finale). You also feel like so much more could have been explored in terms of social critics and funny moments. Feels like an unachieved novel, despite all the hype.
  • (5/5)
    Great peek inside French culture and the social classes. The seemingly dimwitted concierge is really a self-educated expert on culture, arts, and philosophy. The relationship between the little girl, the concierge, and the insightful Japanese gentleman is captivating. The strange characters and their internal conflicts make this a wonderful story, even if the ending is a bit trite.
  • (2/5)
    I'm sorry to say I had to give up on this one...After 137 pages I decided I didn't have the will to slog through the rest of it. I'm still deciding whether I think it is deep or pretentious. I cannot really identify with the characters and, although I did find some moments of beauty and humor, I generally found the prose to be verbose and boring. Here's a representative example:Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing - or trying not to slide down - the tribe's hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable - even mere phantasms - as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this touches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilisation, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice, big, warm dog.Not exactly riveting material. There is little plot to speak of, and much discussion of class differences and intellectual differences. Maybe if I were in a different frame of mind I would enjoy it but at this point in my life I am impatient with it.
  • (5/5)
    Best book I've read in months. Hands down.Of course, it's been sitting on my shelf for years, and I only got around to it because my Mother sent me a copy for my most recent birthday (she has forgotten that she can check my LT catalog any time she wants) highly recommending it. So having finished up a string of relative light weight semi-stinkers, I figured a translated French book about philosophy and god-knows-what-else could be just what I needed to cleanse the palate. If nothing else, it would be quick, I felt pretty sure, and I hoped for little more than that.Wow, did I misjudge this one.First of all, let me say a word about the writing. It was sublime. And because this is a translated text, I think I have to give serious credit to the translator, Alison Anderson. Lots of times when you read translated books, you stumble across expressions, idioms and even simple word choices that break into the flow of your reading because they seem out of place. Lots of times those are foreign expressions/words which don't translate well. The translator does the best that he/she can. I found none of that here. Maybe it's because Anderson is a writer herself. Maybe she took some liberties. I don't know. Regardless of how much freedom and creativity she infused into the English text, it could not have been what it is today without Barbery's original French text, which had to be (as I've said) sublime to begin with. What a pleasure to read.The characters were just as rich. Reneé and Paloma, the two leads, provide the foreground, behind which a subtle arrangement of players create a layered background (Oza the new tenant, Manuela Reneé's friend, Paloma's bourgeois family). The story unfolds delicately. Told in alternating chapters between Reneé's anti-class snobbery and Paloma's adolescent ignorance-cum-loftiness, we see the world around 7 Rue de Grenelle in masked, unreliable tones: through Reneé's refusal to believe that anybody could see a common concierge as anything but a working class dullard and Paloma's belief that she has seen enough in her 13 years years to know, unequivocally, that there is no beauty in the world.Through these two tainted perspectives, we learn about our dual protagonists, their lives, their loves, their thoughts. This gives Barbery plenty of time to wax rhapsodic on any number of topics from philosophy to modern cinema, and it's often in these asides that we, the reader, get caught up in her beautiful writing and forget there is a story going on in the background.But there *is* a story going on, and that's what makes this book better than so many alternatives. It's easy to find beautiful writing without a good story. It's easy to find a good story without beautiful writing. It's very uncommon to find the two combined so nicely. Barbery blends them together masterfully. A note about the ending, which I will state as spoiler-free as possible.Others have commented upon the ending, mostly favorably, albeit with an occasional ode to a box of tissues. In my opinion, it ended perfectly. Anton Chekov famously said that if you hang a rifle on the wall in the first chapter, then in the second or third chapter it must go off. Otherwise why put it there in the first place? Considering Paloma's 13th birthday ultimatum, somebody had to fire that rifle. Sad as I was to see Reneé take up that mantel, the larger story continues on (in my mind) even after the last page is done, left as we are with these parting words from Paloma:"Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, 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. Don't worry Renée… from now on, for you, I'll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world."
  • (4/5)
    I didn't know what to expect from The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It is a story about two people, two females, one of advanced age and another approaching her teens. I wasn't quite sure how I would relate or if this novel would really take hold. Lucky for me, I got an excellent novel filled with philosophical musings and packed with emotion. I finished the novel with tears in my eyes. I don't think you can ask more from a novel. The characters were wonderfully developed and I was surprised by how quickly and unexpectedly I cared for the characters. It was chapter nine, Red October (the story of Lucien and the movies) that clued me in to this fact. The last chapter was also quite moving for me. Here are a few lines that I liked that give nothing away:

    "On the way home I thought: pity the poor spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of the language." page 160

    "As far as I can see only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in ther love for drawn-out suffering." page 166

    "Art is life, playing in different rhythms."
  • (4/5)
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog contains two narratives--one from the concierge at a high class apartment building who loves to read, listen to classical music, and watch films and who feels she must hide her interests from the rich, shallow tenants of her building and the other from a very bright twelve-year-old girl who is a resident of the building and finds adults and the adult world hopelessly shallow and uninteresting. Partly through each characters' interaction with a new tenant, an elegant, kind Japanese gentleman, and partly through their brief interactions with each other, the concierge and the girl each learn to let go of their more extreme judgements on the world. The novel has little to no action or plot, and it is more philosophy than fiction. I disagreed with many of the conclusions that these characters come to, but I enjoyed the observations they made. And I think I would like having either of them round for supper. Overall a book which bemused me, but which I was happy to read.
  • (5/5)
    This book was absolutely brilliant. Translated from French, it initially seemed like a somewhat pretentious, overly philosophical book. However, after the first few chapters it had really reeled me in, and I was hooked. Yes, there is a lot of philosophy contained in this book, but not for its own sake. The book never gets too fond of itself, and the "artsy" parts of the book are more than justified by the story it tells, which turned out to be extremely gripping. One page would have me laughing out loud, the next page would make me feel genuinely sad. Yes, the setting may be a tad contrived, but... did I mention it is a brilliant story? Highly recommended.
  • (3/5)
    After a promising beginning, Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" veers off into a book that has more of an essay feel than a novel vibe. For me, this meant it wasn't terribly successful. I was unable to feel like I was transported into the novel's world because it was more like a philosophy lecture than anything else.The book alternately follows two characters who have something to hide: Renee Michel, an autodidact who works as a concierge but hides her intelligence behind the mundane no one one really sees her. And Paloma Josse, a precocious 12-year-old who hides her intelligence and depression from her family. I'm not really sure why these two characters are so sure that everyone around them is busy noticing their habits and quirks.... it seems fairly apparent that no one really notices either of them very much at all.I heartily enjoyed the opening bit of the novel, but it quickly developed into some type of contest where the alternating narrators lectured to basically say "See, how smart I am. How tortured it makes me!" A few chapters of that would be fine, but there was little plot to advance so Barbery just moves to essays on new, but similar subjects. The end comes along abruptly and tied up everything fairly neatly (theme-wise at least.) So, I guess I liked the beginning and the end, but would have preferred to skip over the middle! Overall, that just left me feeling disappointed since I expected to be wowed after reading the first few chapters. The book is really aptly named -- there is something elegant inside there somewhere, but you just need to delve through all the prickly parts to find it.
  • (5/5)
    This is not the genre that I normally read - I tend towards science fiction and horror novels. Despite this, I can say that I really enjoyed reading this book. If, by "enjoyed", I mean that it is the only book that I have ever whole-heartedly weeped at. I finished this book and simply cried. I felt very attatched to the two main characters, their struggles and everyday lives. I know this book isn't for everyone, but I think that if you let it, it will grow on you. It's especially nice if you have ever been interested in philosophy, but have been to lazy to ever look into it.
  • (5/5)
    What a wonderful book, the translation is excellent-it retains the humor and the satire. The characters are well developed, and the plot line is vry interesting. It is wonderful to read such a well written book.The basic story can be summarized as truth and beauty. Most of the story is told by a 12 1/2 year old who plans to commit suicide and burn down her apartment building. The other portion is told by a lady who is living a fiction. The book is so well done!! Definitely a must read book
  • (1/5)
    If not for a couple of fine, poetic paragraphs, this book would get not merely no stars, but -- if LT's software ever gets closer to the realities of reading and writing -- a deep negative score. Perhaps we need to incorporate Black Holes along with our more conventional astral bodies. Pretentious, emotionally phony stuff: I probably wouldn't have finished it had I not been on a long train-ride, and even then the Nebraska Plains looked good after a while by comparison.
  • (4/5)
    It has taken me a while to review this because it took me a couple of attempts to read the book. There's no disputing it's incredible well written - the language and imagery is beautiful - but I didn't find this an easy read. I have nothing against a book that's challenging but it does mean that this is a book for a certain frame of mind and one to be read when you can give it your full, unwavering attention.Muriel Barbery's writing deserves that. She has a wonderful grasp of language and her descriptive writing is superb. Even weeks after reading a section of the book I can still see it in my mind as if I had been there. That's impressive writing.I look forward to reading more of Ms Barbery's writing in the future!
  • (5/5)
    Madame Michel has been the concierge of an exclusive Paris apartment building for nearly thirty years. She has managed to avoid making any ties to the families who live there by presenting to the world a facade of the stereotypical French employee- an uneducated, mean-tempered oaf who watches t.v. all day.Paloma is a twelve year-old of one of the privileged families in the building, a girl whose IQ exceeds her family's understanding and whose anger at her isolation causes her to hide.Monsieur Ozu is the first new tenant in the building in years. His exotic Japanese ways draw the attention of everyone, including the most invisible residents.This book holds a lot of story. It covers social classes, cultural differences, loneliness, art, but philosophy is as much of the plot as the characters. It is deeply philosophical, to the point, late in the book, where it seemed like the concierge was analyzing grains of sand. For me, that intense scrutiny was the only glitch in this story. Otherwise it is absorbing.
  • (5/5)
    I picked up this book, along with several others, at the Half Price bookstore in Austin. The cover and nice binding, even though it's a paperback, caught my attention; also the strange title was an attraction. Who'd associate elegance with a hedgehog? It turned out to be a fascinating novel. The story centers around three characters who live in a luxury apartment complex in Paris. The building has only 6 units where all its residents are very wealthy, but also very shallow. The exception are the three principal characters who do not fit the norm. One is the concierge, Renee- a woman who hides her above average knowledge, and appreciation for fine music and literature, partly because she does not want to stand out, also because wealthy people do not expect a concierge to be well educated. The second character is a young girl, Plaoma, who is also very smart but hides her intelligence so as not to be bothered by her family, who think she's not very smart. She plans to commit suicide when she turns 13. The third character is an elderly Japanese person, named Ozu, who very quickly after moving in the building realizes that both the concierge and the young girl are worthy of being his friends. The fun parts of this book are reading how the three characters find each other, relate to each other, and through their acquaintance transform their lives. The novel has a tragic ending for one character, but the other two see their world with different eyes afterwards.This is definitely a five star book for me. Although the philosophical, literary and other erudite references may put off some readers I'd recommend it highly.
  • (4/5)
    I love when a book has such love and hate towards it! I must admit, this was definitely not a typical read for me. Despite how "odd" the book was, I continued on. The last 100 pages or so was better than the beginning. However, one of my favorite "profound thoughts" was early on about two dogs and their owners ;-)
  • (4/5)
    Elegance of the Hedgehog unapologetically delves into some detailed philosophical musings which may be a bit much for some, but also balances things out with plenty of laugh-out- loud moments. The main characters are not endearingly quirky as much as they are highly cerebral misfits in their own cultural strata. They can be somewhat annoying at times (more so before you get to know and understand them better)- but who can't? It is a unique and very well written book with great dialogue and characters. The ending did not please me (the author is a French philosopher and most likely does not care a smidgen about my opinion on this matter.) I would read future books by Muriel Barbery.
  • (4/5)
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog is told from two perspectives--that of a concierge and a rich tween. Both make beautiful observations. Both hide from the world. Both seem to think that they are much better than everyone else. And for that reason, I tried not to like them, but I did like them. And I loved Monsieur Ozu. Also, I have to give it to them that they do seem pretty much better than everyone else in the building.If I had stopped before the final 2 chapters, I would have left the book in love and full of hope. But I didn't care at all for the ending, and so I'm pretty much just angry at this book now.
  • (3/5)
    I read this book in about a day mostly because I had the time and partially because this is not an extremely difficult read. It is not a bad book, but with all the hype and amazing reviews around it, I was a little disappointed.

    The chapters that actually dealt with the plot line was enjoyable. I liked reading about the lives of the people who lived in that building. However, a lot of the books is spent droning on about philosophy and art in a completely unnecessary way. I guess it is supposed to give us an understanding of how intelligent our narrators are, but it just comes off as extremely pretentious.

    And speaking of the narrators, the 12-year-old narrator is ridiculously annoying. If I knew a 12-year-old like that, I would want to just slap her for acting as if she is so superior to the rest of the world. Apparently she doesn't realize that she is just as bad as the people she criticizes.

    I don't know, this book left me feeling kind of conflicted. There are parts that I really enjoyed, but there are parts where I was literally rolling my eyes.
  • (1/5)
    Have attempted reading this book 3 times. I just cannot engage with the writing style or the characters. Will put back on the shelf for another go next year.
  • (4/5)
    This novel circles around the lives of three people living in a grand Parisian apartment building. There is the fifty-four-year-old concierge Renee, who hides behind the concierge stereotype because she is afraid to show people that she is intelligent and cultured. Paloma is the bright and precocious twelve-year-old who is convinced that there is nothing worth living for, but she is going to take a year to be proven wrong and not go forward with her plan to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. And lastly, the new tenant Kakuro Ozu; a wealthy Japenese widower. This is the man that draws the three together with his insight and desire to be friends with people of common interests despite their class or age. I’m not sure what to say about this book. I really liked it, but I can’t pinpoint why. It was sweet and tragic, depressing but ultimately hopeful. When you strip away the fluff it is a rather typical story but told in an engaging way with a few twists to keep one interested. The ending was astounding, but upon consideration was the only one possible.
  • (1/5)
    So glad I didn't purchase this. That is all.
  • (3/5)
    The two main female protagonists and narrators are living in the same apartment building in a rich quarter in Paris.The first one is Renée, a concierge in her fifties. She’s not your stereotypical concierge, because she reads a lot and knows much. As she doesn’t want to stand out, she hides her knowledge and plays the “naïve” concierge.The second one is a twelve-year-old girl called Paloma. She lives with her parents and her sister in one of the 200m2 apartments. The precocious little girl notices that everybody is living in some kind of goldfish bowl. She’s experienced too much absurdity in live and that’s why she plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.The book now unfolds the inner monologue of Renée and Paloma’s diary entries about everything under the sun. You can find a lot of social criticism and philosophy on these pages.***I expected way more from the whole book, because I had heard so much positive comments about it. Personally the book was a little bit to calm – following the protagonist’s thoughts just got boring and sometimes even annoying. Two examples: Renée explains that she plays dumb, because people expect that from her. But she has got her own prejudices against the other people. She just uses their assumed prejudices as an excuse to stay alone. She doesn’t give them even a chance to get to know her. And at one point Paloma criticizes how everybody is just talking and not doing anything and how words mean nothing. Then I have to ask myself why she wants to write down her thoughts – to leave something back – at all.Barbery just wears out all the potential stereotypes: Only poor people know how to live right. Every school/college/university education is worth nothing, because only native cunning (I prefer the German term of “Bauernschläue” = “farmer’s intelligence”) is necessary in life. As Barbery marks Renée as an atypical concierge, she strengthens the prejudice that the “every-day” concierge must be naïve. In my opinion these stereotypes larded with a few philosophical excursuses are the reason for the book’s success: Barbery writes down what everyone somehow already knew or thought.I was thinking about sorting the book out directly after having finished it. But maybe it’s a book I can fully enjoy only in 10 years from now, when I’m a little bit older. We'll see about that.