Friday, April 24, 2009

French Philosophers

You've probably seen the title on the bestseller lists – The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. And you may have heard the unusual story of its origin. First published in France with an initial run of only 4000, within a year it had sold over a million copies, and remained on the bestseller list in France for nearly two years. It was translated into English and published in paperback by Europa Editions, an independent press which specializes in translated works.

So what's all the fuss about? The story takes place almost exclusively at the elegant apartment building at 7 rue de Grenelle, Paris, and there are two main characters whose narratives alternate throughout the book. The first is Renée Michel, the uneducated fifty-something concierge, who plays the part of the ignorant, television-watching dullard her residents expect her to be, but who secretly is an autodidact (I've been dying to use that word) who reads voraciously and loves literature, philosophy, Dutch art, Japanese film and French pastries. The other is Paloma Josse, the precocious and intelligent twelve year old who lives with her parents and older sister in the fifth floor apartment, and who, already disillusioned with life, is planning to kill herself and burn down the apartment building on her thirteenth birthday. The two do not interact until late in the book, but in the meantime we learn a great deal about their lives and their opinions, of which they have plenty. What ultimately connects them is the wealthy, mysterious (note to self: do not say inscrutable) Japanese businessman Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, who values them both.

Renée's voice is a particularly amusing one, as she caustically dissects the pompous residents of her building. Paloma is a trifle too precocious to be believable, but she has some wonderfully funny descriptions of her well-to-do family. And they both enjoy talking about philosophy. Is that why the French love this book so much? To enjoy it you need to suspend disbelief and just let these quirky characters carry you along as they reveal more and more about themselves. It is by turns charming, satirical, heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I found this book entertaining, but it didn't live up to its hype for me. At times I was definitely aware that I was reading a translation – it sounded too literal and didn't flow naturally. But it's an interesting view of French life and of what the French love to read.

1 comment:

  1. Summer is a time for me to read and I read whatever I can find. On my bookcase I found "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and "City of Thieves", both blogged by Charlotte. Both of these novels are wonderful reads. I think I enjoyed "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" more than Charlotte did. I thought the translation was very good and the characters really touched me. I laughed and cried! The "City of Thieves" is a great story. More about the siege of Leningrad and memorable characters. We have blogged some great books!!