Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery-Reading Through The Hedge

Yes Renee does somehow reduce the people she sees in the building to stereotypes just as she reduces herself to one. I think a reader needs to see through this as part of the effects of the limits of Renee’s mind and education. The Irony is in her mind she mocks the occupants of the building for not seeing her as a whole person whereas she does the same thing to them without knowing it. As to the worship of Japanese culture-I think this is also to be taken in a kind of ironic mode. I did find the character of the 12 year old girl not really convincing in terms of her profound utterances-But then again Anne Frank was 13.
What I liked best about the book was its depiction of how a life of reading can shape a person. Anyone who is into the reading life and has worked with or worse for those that seem way inferior culturally will love Madame Renee!

Renee’s self respect and self image comes from her ability to see those she works for and must be subservient to as stereotypes-cartoon characters or characters in a soap opera almost, not real persons with a rich interior life such as she has built for herself over the years of reading serious books. She carefully hides her reading and intelligence as she knows it may make her rich employers uncomfortable (Renee and Barbery know of Hegel’s master/slave reading of history and knows why slaves were not allowed to learn to read in most cultures.) Also, if Renee does somehow open up the carefully hidden aspects of her personality she may find those she looks down on are not the shallow fools she sees them to be. Renee needs, in part, to hide in order to protect herself image, maybe. As to her initial bonding with the Japanese man over Tolstoy, this is very interesting. The Japanese man does not fit easily into her stereotypes nor she into his. He may well be the richest person in the building thus, in her projected ethos of the building dwellers, above her employers in status. Tolstoy is an interesting choice here as he creates a whole world, he is hardly pro French. Whenever he writes in French in War and Peace it seems the speakers are banal, at best. Husserl, her philosopher of choice (ok here
I am leaning on reading I did 40 years ago) is saying everything is perception. To me one of the big points of Elegance of the Hedgehog is that we are all in part trapped by the stereotypes we project on others and those we let them project on us. Madame Renee sees her employers as half educated materialists and they see her as what she likes to pretend she is. Another big point to me is that reading enlarged the world of Madame Renee-she can see farther into the ironies and pleasures of life. Notice she never thinks of her cleaning lady friend in condescending terms. I need also to rethink my reactions to the child character. Super bright children are into math, science, gadgets etc not profundity but maybe I am missing something here with the example of Anne Frank in my mind now as I just read her diary for the first time. Any way, I really like Hedgehog a lot and wish I could read it in French.

I did not like the ending as a novelistic device and I did not like it as a way of closing the story. Of course we are curious what might become of Paloma. My guess is she slowly develops into another Rich Person in the apartment but will always be somehow detached. I think there is a lot in this book on the reading life and I think one of the points is that it can detach you somehow. Sometimes the detachment allows you to rise above the banalities of life and sometimes it leaves you out. I think Paloma will be able to be honest with herself as she ages. Do you think as she ages she will be caught up in the “reading life”? As an adult will she end not seeing beyond stereotypes or is she already totally caught up in them? Or is that all there is?

To me, Hedgehog does not really idealize Japanese culture itself, it uses Madame Renee and Paloma’s adoration for Japanese culture as part of its treatment of the effects of stereotypes. Renee and Paloma know next to nothing about Japanese culture and it is this lack of knowledge that allows them to project reading induced stereotypes on the Japanese character in the novel. I really like “The Elegance of Hedgehogs” (ok I love it) for its account of the reading life. It also tells us a lot about the effects of stereotypes.
has a great review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog-my post here is partially based on comments I made there. Most of the negative remarks on the book have to do with the notion that the book some how stereo types Japanese culture. To me this misses one of the biggest themes of the book.

Hedgehogs (I love the title) tells us a really lot about the reading life. One of the things it shows us is how it leads to stereo typical perceptions of others and ourselves.

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Harvee said...

Your review prompted me to buy this book, tho I did not real all of the review as I want to be surprised by the book! I was surprised that several people on Goodreads did not like the book at all!

Suko said...

Mel, I have heard so much about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and now I read your review, in which you say, "What I liked best about the book was its depiction of how a life of reading can shape a person." Think I will need to read this book. Definitely.

SusieCat said...

You might be interested in listening to the discussion on the Diane Rehm Show (NPR radio show) of this book. The audio archive of the show (it's about an hour long) is at

Book Bird Dog said...

I like your view of the book that focuses on Renee's secret reading life. A very important part of the novel,yes.

Book Bird Dog said...

I agree that Mr. Ozu is not used to glorify Japanese culture. I see him as a foil for the self-absorbed French culture that the author is satirizing. Renee is guilty of the same self absorbtion. In that way, she is also very much a part of her environment, and is pulled out of it by meeting Mr. Ozu. I loved this book and much of what the author tried to say, both about her society and about philosophy.

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