Sunday, January 08, 2012

What I've been reading lately...The elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I was surprised when I first began reading this book because it wasn't what I expected.  For reasons unknown, I was expecting a book written in a similar vein to McCall's 44 Scotland street.  Or something like Candace Bushnell's book One fifth avenue .  This means I was expecting some intelligent chick lit, or a microscopic view of the daily lives of the inhabitants of 7 Rue de Grenelle, a grand parisian apartment.  This book however is about philosophy.  Or specifically phenomenology.  This is the study of the observation of consciousness.

Have you ever wondered why it is that you can observe your cat and know at the same time what he looks like from the front,behind, above and below - even though at the present moment you are perceiving him only from the front?  It must be that your consciousness, without your even realising it, has been synthesising multiple perceptions of your cat from every possible angle, and has ended up creating this integral image of the cat that your sight, at that moment, could never give you.
Renee who is the concierge of the apartment building seems to apply her observations of the apartment's inhabitants.  The book begins with Marx, and Marx of course is a wonderful way to begin as Renee scathingly points out the abyss between herself and the very rich bourgeois who live there.  I don't think you can have a book about philosophy and not include Marx and indeed the juxtaposition of concierge Renee, Cleaning lady Manuela and the Parisian bourgeois residents works very well. 

Whether you are a determinist or existentialist doesn't matter but what struck me is you would have to have some sort of knowledge of philosophy of these different ideologies to read this book.  So I ask, can you read this book without knowing the work of Marx, Kant, Descartes or Husserl?  Is this the extreme irony of the book, where the reader themselves must not be one of the masses to be able to get it?  Is it a book written only for the intelligentsia that Renee appears to rail against?

Nevertheless the novel is filled with exquisite insight and writing.  One of my favourite parts is Renee's description of drinking tea.  Now I have blogged here before about the importance of coffee in my life.  In our household coffee is taken very seriously.  I've tried to describe its importance and the word I came up with was ritual.  That is, I sit down once each day, usually around mid-morning, and this becomes my time.  The following quote describes this sentiment aptly - and dare I say elegantly!  When I read it I thought to myself, yes!  That's exactly how it is.  The author is talking about tea, but yet it translates to any beverage or brew you may partake of with enjoyment.

The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a licence granted to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, 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, the autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light.  And with each swallow, time is sublimed.
One of the things that struck me is Renee's perception of class.  They say that Australia is a classless society (personally I don't believe that as I think we do apply class in some ways) and I think that this made it difficult for me to comprehend why Renee adheres to class so much.  But for this novel to work the distinction between class needs to examined.  Indeed this novel is a philosophical examination of life.  It is a beautiful book.

The book isn't only about the philosophy of the mundane.  I promise there are characters and there is a plot.  Aside from Renee there is twelve year old Paloma Josse, a privileged young girl living upstairs.  Her thirteenth birthday is approaching and she plans to commit suicide.  It appears she cannot abide the mundane of her wealthy family.  A gifted child, she has hidden away her intelligence.  When one of the neighbours dies, things change for both Renee and Paloma.  How?  You'll just have to read it to find out.


As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

It took me three tries to get into this book. The first two times I wanted to throw the book against the wall, but once I cracked page 75, I became deeply engrossed. And by the time I came to the end I believed it was one of the best books I'd read that year.

It was the first time I was really aware of Europa Publications.

scribeswindow said...

I find myself thinking about this book a lot. I feel as though Barbery set out to discuss every facet of life. Did she succeed? I think she made a fair go of it. Thanks for commenting. :)

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