20th April 2012

This again is  very unusual and layered book . Its is difficult to really write about it at this distance in time , because it is an extremely intellectual and philosophical book.  Some of us liked it more than others, and the best analysis of the book is in  a talk by Robert Adams  and I am giving the Youtube link at the end because its comprehensive. The summary of the novel is  taken from the net because it cant be improved upon :

“We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. 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, unbeknownst 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. “

Both Renee and Paloma create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renée with erudition and Paloma with adolescent brio. Neither character realizes they share such similar views, from “the pointlessness of my existence,” as Renée says, to their affection for Japanese culture. Paloma adores reading manga, while Renée goes into raptures over an Ozu scene in which the violet mountains of Kyoto become a soul-saving vision of beauty.

Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her politician father and Flaubert-quoting mother, while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty in Proustian moments of elongated time. What Renée calls “a suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” Paloma experiences while watching a rosebud fall. “It’s something to do with time, not space,” she says. “Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it.”

The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within.In Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy  (beloved of Renee) “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” he gives his famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.
The Japanese gentleman Mr. Ozu is the key to the book. He ties the two narrators together and he is the only person who sees them for what they really are, Probably because he has been able to reconcile the contradictions of life within himself philosophically… in other words  and enlightened person.. ?  I like this a lot… ties in with my view on spiritual development. It is this encounter after all, that makes Paloma  decide that life may be worth living after all. 
I find now that a movie also has been made , link of the trailer given below
Robert Adams talk  link given below
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One Response to THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barberry

  1. Shakun Maithel Mandal says:

    Wow Runa didn’t know that a movie has been made on this..

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