The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel BarberyThe Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

byMuriel BarberyTranslated byAlison Anderson

Paperback | September 12, 2008

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The international bestseller that has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a moving, funny, atmospheric novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.We are in an elegant hotel particulier in the center of Paris. Renee, the building's concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighborhood. But Renee has a secret: she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants-her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.Then there's Paloma, a super-smart twelve-year-old and the youngest daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Talented, precocious, and startingly lucid, she has come to terms with life's seeming futility and has decided to end her own on the day of 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 subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedientif obstinate daughter.Paloma and Renee 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 Renee's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her.
Muriel Barberyis the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa, 2008), and Gourmet Rhapsody (Europa, 2009). She has lived in Kyoto, Amsterdam and now lives in the French countryside. Alison Anderson's translations for Europa Editions include novels by Selim Nassib, Amelie Nothomb, and Eric-Emmanuel...
Title:The Elegance Of The HedgehogFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:336 pages, 8.5 × 5.6 × 1 inShipping dimensions:8.5 × 5.6 × 1 inPublished:September 12, 2008Publisher:Europa EditionsLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1933372605

ISBN - 13:9781933372600


Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Read This book was truly enjoyable to read, filled with profound insights about life from the very different perspectives of the characters.
Date published: 2018-06-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Read This novel was originally written in french and then translated into English. A novel definitely meant for adults; with a cover and title that would gravitate to a younger reader but intriguing to an adult as well. I was impressed by its' physical weightiness regarding the quality of paper used for the pages and the card stock quality for the cover. This novel is so insightful in its candidness that I often re-red certain passages. Renee the concierge is an amazing character. Paloma is the 12 year old who is so similar to Renee despite the generation gap. Kakuro, the man from Japan whose elegant wisdom reaches into Renee's soul allowing her to heal and blossom. The ending is tragic but done in a beautiful way.
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I really tried to like it I tried to read this book and persevered through about half. Lent it to a friend who loved it. She convinced me to try it again and still couldn't get into it. The story dragged and the characters didn't grab my attention.
Date published: 2018-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoughtful and entertaining I thoroughly enjoyed this novel! Barbery tells the story through such beautiful characters. The novel is thought-provoking without being a long read or overbearing at any point.
Date published: 2017-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wondel Challenge I haven't looked up so many words while reading in a long time. It was refreshing to learn some new vocabulary. This book, how to even describe it...this is the best book I have read this year. I loved the characters and the story!! I'll be purchasing Gourmet Rhapsody, a spinoff novel following a character from this novel.
Date published: 2017-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Captivating read Beautifully written with interesting perspective.
Date published: 2017-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Clearly not for your average reader As someone who has spent time studying writing I found this book wonderfully engaging but it is clearly not for everyone. I enjoyed looking up words and phrases that are not commonly used in North American culture. I felt rewarded to immerse myself in this beautiful world Muriel Barberry created.
Date published: 2016-11-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor Tolstoy...poor everyone. Too much hedgehog, not enough elegance. Predictable in some places, overwrought in others and with and ending that's hard to care about, after everything. There are spots of beauty here, but not exactly worth the trouble of finding them. I hate my book club for this.
Date published: 2016-11-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Pick it up A great story that’s very clever and celebrates a love of language. The tight parallels between the narrators’ stories are particularly special.
Date published: 2014-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, compelling and inspirational I am in love with this book! The Elegance of the Hedgehog, written by Muriel Barbery. It was so compelling and captivating, hence why it took me longer than usual to read. After every page I had to pause for reflection. Muriel draws you into the character’s world; you are completely consumed by them.
Date published: 2014-10-31
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Pretentious Until the very very end of the book, I found nothing redeeming about this book. The bulk of the story was absolutely pretentious. A tragic young girl who blasphemously refers to Paris as a "cultural wasteland"; and a middle-aged concierge who spouts Tolstoy but ultimately listens to Eminem - both think they're too good for the world at large. Gratuitously verbose and not recommended.
Date published: 2014-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hedgehog You'll need your dictionary but this visionary book is well worth the effort
Date published: 2014-05-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The Elegance of the Hedgehog Madame Renée Michel, a concierge in a Paris apartment building, lives life in disguise. While learned, well read, culturally sophisticated and highly intelligent, every day she dons the blue-collar costume and mannerisms deemed typical of those in her line of work. Life, she believes, is easier inside her shell. To the wealthy patrons in her building she is, at best, a service and, at worst, invisible. Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of wealthy residents of the building, lives life in disguise. While observant, intelligent, articulate and suicidal, every day she dons the schoolgirl costume and mannerisms deemed typical of those her age. Life, she believes is easier inside her shell. To her family she is, at best, ordinary, and at worst, inconvenient. These two characters narrate The Elegance of the Hedgehog. From inside their respective shells, they give their disdainful views of the well-heeled residents of the building. I have to confess to wanting to give up on this book early on. Barbery's early chapters contain some self-indulgent displays of smarty-pants-ism. Philosophical theories, Dutch art studies and Japanese cultural references abound. My brain hurt from stretching back to recall long-forgotten university courses. My head ached from the many times I asked, "Should I look that up? Or move on?" (I moved on.) But it was our book club book, so I pressed on. About half-way through, Barbery got her intellectual offerings out of the way and engaged in the plot. Then I didn't want to put the book down. In the end, Renée discovers that life inside a shell is as smelly as the backed-up plumbing in her lodgings, and Paloma, well, I don't want to give it away. Read this book with a fully engaged brain and a search engine (or your university text books) close at hand.
Date published: 2012-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Don't let the title stop you! A smart concierge who manages her building with grace, intelligence and compassion; a smart young teen; several interesting residents; a great story told well.
Date published: 2012-08-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Endearing While others are drawn to the polished and flashy, I find myself gravitating to characters who seem to be dull and ordinary at first glance, yet hide within themselves a depth and clarity that no one would expect unless they win their way inside (kind of like the TARDIS? lol). This is how I feel about the two main characters within this novel, with their keen perceptions and insights of themselves and others, while never letting on that they can even see at all. The characters are intricate and multifaceted, and definitely induces emotions from the reader. I appreciate that this book has taught me a few things about philosophy and the Arts, and got me back in the habit of looking words up in the dictionary (who can say that they know every word in THAT book? lol). I appreciate when a book stimulates a reader mentally while simultaneously educating it. I will admit that the beginning drags on a little bit (extremely educational yet not altogether engaging at times), however once the characters meet (somewhere in the middle of the book) the plot line picks up. I can't help but feel protective of Renee after what she goes through, and I cannot imagine that others will not find her, Paloma, and Mr. Ozu endearing as well.
Date published: 2011-12-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Don't miss it My only regret is that I didn't read this book sooner. A well written interesting book about characters who love literature - why would one not want to read this right away? Do so.
Date published: 2011-07-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Elegant Simply a beautiful, elegantly told story.
Date published: 2011-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Elegance of Intelligence in Paris In my romanticized version of Europe, after I've eaten ravioli in Roma, and sipped cappuccinos at a stand-up cafe, then I will stroll along the Seine and stop at booksellers with used treasures they sell along the river. In my romanticized version of Europe, the French and the Germans and the Albanians, they all drink good wine and smoke Gauloises at will. They eat thin slices of excellent cheese and talk about interesting things and deep things and not what they watched last night on TV. They talk about politics and paintings, they discuss books and don't care what Oprah thinks. The men read fiction and care about it. The women dress well but are also smart as hell. Together the men and the women, before they go off to have tantric sex on old-fashioned beds, they have long slow dinners at long wooden tables, or perhaps they are small round tables at an outdoor cafe on a cobblestone walkway, some Van Goghian starlight to brighten the evening, to sparkle off their bread knives. This place I imagine is not real, I know. Oprah is shown around the world. Michael Bay films are global monsters and we stopped lighting the night with stars a long long time ago. But then I read Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and all the intelligence and philosophy and the wit and the hope and pathos of the European, of the French, becomes real again. I haven't flown through a work of fiction like this in ages. Fact is, I keep putting the books I'm reading down (Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning "Wolf Hall" included). Barbery isn't afraid to discuss Marx and issues of class that continue today, she philosophizes on death and the meaning of life, but then she also discusses her love of Ridley Scott sci-fi movies and she quotes Eminem. Yet for all its brainy seduction, the book is no lecture, the story no bore. How many times did I stop at my local Indigo to look at the beautiful blue of the cover and the sheer perfection of that title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. But it takes so much more to buy book, to read book, to trust all those hours to turn all those pages to force all those neurons. So I must thank a dear friend and poet for the suggestion. She told me I had to. And we all have friends like these. When they tell you you have to - you have to. So I did. And now I recommend it to you.
Date published: 2010-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not to be Missed I was surprised about how much I loved this. It was an instant love. We are taken on the quirky, brilliant, poignant and observant story of two (very introspective) secret geniuses, both hiding their genius from the people around them, and both in need of saving. This book is primarily the observations of the goings-on of a Parisian apartment complex, observations filled with wit and humour and sarcasm, and honest intelligence and philosophy, observations offered by a self-professed ugly concierge and not so average 12 year old. The plot pushes forward quietly and smartly to its culmination (brought on by the sudden death of a much loathed food critic and the appearance of a mysterious Japanese intellect), and left me wanting more and more and more of these two brilliant, memorable characters.
Date published: 2010-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Philosophical and Engaging I purchased this novel on a whim after reading the description inside the cover and finding myself immediately engaged by the uniqueness of the two main characters. I rarely choose new books this way since I find I am often disappointed by what I thought would be an interesting and original story but this novel both surprised and delighted me. The story describes the importance of Art, particularly the subtleties of language, in what may sometimes seem a meaningless existence. The tale is told through Renee, an autodidact that hides her love for Beauty and Art underneath the tough exterior of a stubborn concierge, and Paloma, a twelve year old determined to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday to escape the goldfish bowl that is adulthood and to teach her family that the wealthy can also lose everything. The tale is full of philosophical dialogue which ranges from the purpose of our consciousness to the significance of the movement of a single moment. The characters are so deptual and believable I could not pull myself away from the text. Interestingly, there is very little description of setting and the book takes place more in the minds of others than in an actual descriptive location (with some exceptions including the simple, yet elegant, apartment of Monsieur Ozu). Overall I highly suggest this novel to anyone who has ever questioned the meaning of life and who has a high appreciation for literature, film and art. I will say, however, that this is not a book for everyone since it is heavy in philosophy (which can be confusing at times) and contains a lot of in depth critiques of language. The original language of the novel is French and I would suggest a minor understanding of the structure of the language before reading since it will be easier to understand some of the references made, particularly by Renee (for example the subtle difference between adressing an individual as tu or vous). It's not critical, but it is helpful in understanding some of the relationships and the absolute appreciation Renee has for language.
Date published: 2010-01-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Poignant and Delightful This is one clever novel written in a simple formula that draws the reader gradually into a philosophical fable. Narrated alternately at each chapter, the story is dominated by Renée Michel, an unassuming concierge in her 50s who happens to be an autodidact who believes life is less complicated and more enjoyable by not displaying outwardly the depth of her knowledge. Paloma Josse is a precocious 12 year old daughter of a diplomat and socialite who lives in the same ritzy building as Renée, she believes adulthood is meaningless and plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday and burn down the building she lives in. The author tells Renée story in the first person and Paloma’s is quoted from a dairy type notebook labelled “Profound Thoughts”. They both share a friend in Monsieur Ozu, a mysterious, wealthy Japanese man who also resides in the building. This story creeps up subtlety and takes hold of your attention without notice. It may seem slow at first but the author has written an exceptional tale about how one is perceived based on class, beauty and their position in life. The described adventures of the characters show that even people from different backgrounds are not all that different and have a lot in common. Although rich in texture and philosophy I found the story quite entertaining. It is a character study of three individuals and their inner thoughts towards life in general. This novel is not all substance it has a humorous side to it, one that made me smile and laugh at times. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is a poignant and delightful read.
Date published: 2009-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a wonderful novel! I really enjoyed "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" for the short journal entry-like chapters to fabricate an intricate story that brings the characters together. The writing was whimsical, philosophical, witty, and very poetic. It's a very beautiful story.
Date published: 2009-11-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Elegance of the Hedgehog "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" takes place in an elegant apartment building in Paris that contains an intelligent concierge who takes great care to hide her intellect from the people living in the building. Renee the concierge has a love for art, literature and philosophy, but not with sharing her knowledge. Another voice in the book is twelve year old Paloma who also is intelligent, is in love with anything Japanese, but she is contemplating suicide. Paloma also hides her intelligence from other people. The book's story is told by these two voices, at some points they seem unrealistic and contrived, but they are still a pleasure to get to know. Mr Ozu a Japanese man moves into the building and right away sees who Renee and Paloma are and he tries to bring them out of their shells. The three of them become friends and for the short period they know each other their lives are changed for the better. The ending is surprising, but oddly fitting to the whole unrealistic nature of the book. I enjoyed reading this book and I admit I had to look a few things up on the internet to figure out exactly what Renee was talking about. It also taught me to look at people in a slightly different light.
Date published: 2009-11-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Elegant Writing by Muriel Barbery It is books like this one that remind me how wonderful the written word can be. I found this book thought-provoking and cleverly written. This novel follows a 12-year-old brilliant-but-suicidal girl named Paloma and the intellectual-in-hiding concierge in the building Madame Michel. The book is written from both of their perspectives and they tell of the characters in their building and the absolute despair they feel for the current human race. Both of them are old souls who seek to find meaning in a world of uppertclass robots that have no appreciation for culture except to know what is expensive and most impressive in their living room. Barbery clearly defines a voice for each of these characters. Besides the change in font, it is easy to tell who is speaking. Each character has their own voice and their own style of writing which makes it easy to follow both of their stories. It is also interesting how both of the characters interpret the same situations. Although they are from different backgrounds and at different stages in their life, both characters see the events that transpire around them with a similar feeling towards it. Although it did take me a few chapters to really get into the book, once I did I really started to enjoy it. Barbery manages to end the novel in such a way that leaves the reader feeling hopeful despite the lack of hope the main characters exhibit throughout the novel.
Date published: 2009-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stunning Intelligence I can see how people might get frustrated with this book- it isn't one you can speed through, but rather for full enjoyment I think it should be savored and read slowly to grasp the all the delicate nuances. The language and philosophical elements are a treat for the mind, and this is such an intelligent book that it sparks thoughts in me still, despite having finished it months ago.
Date published: 2009-10-14
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed I was tempted by the promise of its philosophical touch and a clever ending. I was however lost in the midst of it by confusing lines of thoughts of the characters. I found the narrative at times long-winded and boring, sad to not have hold out long enough to collect the awaited reward of a final finale.
Date published: 2009-10-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from has its charms... Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book. So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it. Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris. "I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit 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." (19) Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx. Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it. "My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent." (23) The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma, is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined. This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is. I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.
Date published: 2009-09-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fable and Fairytale I have mixed feelings about this book...many times i felt as though i was reading a series of short essays that were all tied together with a common thread. And some of those essays were a bit too philosophical for my liking. Although i like a book that makes me think, i don't want to feel as though i'm back in philosophy class with...whatever that professors name was. I don't want to have to reread a paragraph three times to be sure i understand the meaning before i move on. And i often felt that way while reading this book. Having said that...i liked the plot, i liked the fairytale, the fable, the dream. I liked the characters and how they interacted. And for some reason i was expecting the ending...and it was perhaps the best ending for this type of read and for these characters and what they had to say.
Date published: 2009-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from L'élégance du hérisson (Elegance of the Hedgehog) One of the most remarkable books I've read in the last several years. It should be read in French to get the added enjoyment of the beauty of the language.
Date published: 2008-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "Outstanding!" Says Elliott in Praise not Review It has been a long time since my eyes have graced the pages of such a magnificent work. With self-pity I mourn the end of my time in Paris with Renee and Paloma much like a child mourns the end of summer holiday, its enevitable fatality. My hat goes off Muriel Barbery Goddess of the Pen, genius really. A second hat off to Alison Anderson for tenderly translating a masterpiece with the delicacy of a fine art restorationist thus allowing me to participate as reader to experience the haunting power of November rain, the simplicity of Dutch still life, the honesty of heartfelt Movements of the World, the serenity brought by camellias in bloom, and the ability to appreciate the Elegance of the Hedgehog. Merci infiniment.
Date published: 2008-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful Intelligence Renee lives a lie, she pretends to be cranky, dumb, and common, when in fact she is intelligent, thoughtful, and caring. Paloma is 12 pretending to be happy, while preparing for her suicide on her next birthday. Ozu is the man who sees them for what they really are. Together these three create a beautiful, intelligent story that will fill your heart with beautiful joy, and bitter sadness. It also has several of the most romantic quotes I have read in recent months. Stunning, I loved it.
Date published: 2008-10-08

Read from the Book

By purchasing this digital edition you have been granted right to its private use only.  All other uses, including those committed without knowledge of these conditions, are excluded and will be considered as a violation of copyright laws, an offense subject to prosecution. Europa Editions 116 East 16th Street New York, NY 10003 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 Cover/Emanuele Ragnisco ISBN 978-1-933372-60-0 (TPO, US) ISBN 978-1-60945-013-7 (ePub, US) ISBN 978-1-60945-015-1 (ePub, World) Muriel Barbery THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG   Translated from the French by Alison Anderson MARX (Preamble) 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? CAMELLIAS 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 by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it. On Sundays, the vulgarity of her in-laws, who with their loud laughter muffle the pain of being born weak and without prospects; the vulgarity of an environment as bleakly desolate as the neon lights of the factory where the men go each morning, like sinners returning to hell; then, the vulgarity of her employers who, for all their money, cannot hide their own baseness and who speak to her the way they would a mangy dog covered with oozing bald patches. But you should have witnessed Manuela offering me, as if I were a queen, the fruit of her prowess in haute patisserie to fully appreciate the grace that inhabits this woman. Yes, as if I were a queen. When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic. “That little Pallières boy said hello to me in the stairway,” she says suddenly, interrupting the silence. I snort with disdain. “He’s reading Marx,” I add, with a shrug of my shoulders. “Marx?” she asks, pronouncing the x as if it were a sh, a somewhat slurping sh, as charming as a clear sky. “The father of communism,” I reply. Manuela makes a scornful noise. “Politics,” she says. “A toy for little rich kids that they won’t let anyone else play with.” She is thoughtful for a moment, frowning. “Not his typical reading material,” she says. The illustrated magazines that the young boys hide under the mattress cannot escape Manuela’s shrewd gaze, and the Pallières boy seemed at one point to be consuming them assiduously, however selectively, as exemplified by one particularly dog-eared page with an explicit title: The Saucy Marchionesses. We laugh and converse for a while longer about one thing or another, in the calm space of an old friendship. These are precious moments for me, and I am filled with anguish at the thought that a day will come when Manuela will fulfill her lifelong dream of returning to her country for good, and will leave me here alone and decrepit, with no companion to transform me, twice a week, into a clandestine monarch. I also wonder fearfully what will happen when the only friend I have ever had, the only one who knows everything without ever having to ask, leaves behind her this woman whom no one knows, enshrouding her in oblivion.   We can hear steps in the entrance and then, distinctly, the cryptic sound of fingers on the elevator’s call button; it is an old wood-paneled elevator with a black grille and double doors, the sort of place where, in the old days, if there had been room you would have had an attendant. I recognize the footsteps, it is Pierre Arthens, the food critic who lives on the fourth floor, an oligarch of the worst sort who, from the very way he squints whenever he stands on the threshold of my dwelling, must think that I live in a dark cave—even though what he is able to see is bound to prove the contrary. Well, I have read his brilliant restaurant reviews. “I don’t understand a thing what he’s talking about,” says Manuela; for her a good roast is a good roast and that’s all there is to it. There is nothing to understand. It is a pity to see such a worthy wordsmith blindly wasting his talent. To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato—for Pierre Arthens reviews food as if he were telling a story, and that alone is enough to make him a genius—without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity. I have often wondered, as I watch him go by with his huge arrogant nose: Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things? It seems one can. Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them—all at the whim of their own subjective inspiration. As if on cue, the footsteps suddenly grow louder and Arthens rings at my loge. I stand up, careful to drag my feet: the slippers in which they are clad are so very typical that only the coalition between a baguette and a beret could possibly contend in the domain of cliché. In doing this, I know I am exasperating the Maître, for he is a living ode to the impatience of mighty predators, and this shall contribute to the diligence with which I very slowly open the door a crack to reveal my wary nose, which I trust is red and shiny. “I’m expecting a package from the courier,” he says, eyes squinting and nostrils pinched. “When it arrives, would you bring it to me immediately?” This afternoon Monsieur Arthens is wearing a large polka-dot lavaliere that is too loose on his patrician neck and does not suit him at all: the abundance of his leonine mane and the floppiness of the silk cloth conspire to create a sort of vaporous tutu, causing the gentleman to forfeit his customary virility. Confound it, that lavaliere reminds me of something. I almost smile as it comes back to me. It’s Legrandin, and his lavaliere. In Remembrance of Things Past, the work of a certain Marcel, another notorious concierge, Legrandin is a snob who is torn between two worlds, his own and the one he would like to enter: he is a most pathetic snob whose lavaliere expresses his most secret vacillations between hope and bitterness, servility and disdain. Thus, when he has no wish to greet the narrator’s parents on the square in Combray, but is nevertheless obliged to walk by them, he assigns to his scarf the task of floating in the wind, thereby signifying a melancholy mood that will exempt him from any conventional greeting. Pierre Arthens may know his Proust, but, for all that, he has developed no particular indulgence toward concierges; he clears his throat impatiently. To recall his question: “Would you bring it to me immediately?” (The package sent by courier—rich people’s parcels do not travel by the usual postal routes.) “Yes,” I reply, beating all records of concision, encouraged by his own brevity and by the absence of any “please,” which the use of the interrogative conditional did not, in my opinion, entirely redeem. “It’s very fragile,” he adds, “do be careful, I beg you.” The use of the imperative and the “I beg you” does not have the good fortune to find favor with me, particularly as he believes I am incapable of such syntactical subtleties, and merely uses them out of inclination, without having the least courtesy to suppose that I might feel insulted. You know you have reached the very bottom of the social food chain when you detect in a rich person’s voice that he is merely addressing himself and that, although the words he is uttering may be, technically, destined to you, he does not even begin to imagine that you might be capable of understanding them. “Fragile how?” I ask therefore, somewhat listlessly. He sighs conspicuously and on his breath I detect a faint hint of ginger. “It is an incunabulum,” he says and toward my eyes, which I try to render as glassy as possible, he directs the smug gaze of the propertied classes. “Well, much good may it do you,” I retort with disgust. “I’ll bring it to you just as soon as the courier arrives.” And I slam the door in his face. The prospect that this evening Pierre Arthens will sit at his dinner table and entertain his family with a witty remark about his concierge’s indignation over the mention of an incunabulum (no doubt she imagined that this was something improper) delights me no end. God knows which one of us looks more the fool. Journal of the Movement of the World No. 1 Stay centered without losing your shorts It’s all well and good to have profound thoughts on a regular basis, but I think it’s not enough. Well, I mean: I’m going to commit suicide and set the house on fire in a few months; obviously I can’t assume I have time at my disposal, therefore I have to do something substantial with the little I do have. And above all, I’ve set myself a little challenge: if you commit suicide, you have to be sure of what you’re doing and not burn the house down for nothing. So if there is something on the planet that is worth living for, I’d better not miss it, because once you’re dead, it’s too late for regrets, and if you die by mistake, that is really, really dumb. So, obviously, I have my profound thoughts. But in my profound thoughts, I am playing at who I am—hey, no way around it, I am an intellectual (who makes fun of other intellectuals). It’s not always the most, but it’s very entertaining. So I thought I ought to make up for this “glory of the mind” side with a second journal that would talk about the body or about things. Not the profound thoughts of the mind, but the masterpieces of matter. Something incarnate, tangible. But beautiful and aesthetic at the same time. With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life. I’m still too young to claim to know much about love and friendship. But Art . . . if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life. Well, when I say Art, don’t get me wrong: I’m not just talking about great works of art by great masters. Even Vermeer can’t convince me to hold life dear. He’s sublime, but he’s dead. No, I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal of the Movement of the World will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even—if there’s really nothing to say—things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options: if I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all. In fact, I got this idea for a double journal (one for the mind, one for the body) yesterday. Papa was watching a rugby match on television. Up until now, at times like this I’ve looked mostly at Papa. I like to watch him roll up his shirtsleeves, take his shoes off and settle on the sofa with a beer and some salami, as though declaring, “Behold the man I also know how to be.” Apparently it doesn’t occur to him that one stereotype (very serious Minister of the Republic) plus another stereotype (Mr.-Nice-Guy-all-the-same who likes his cold beer) makes a stereotype raised to the power of two. In short, on Saturday, Papa came home earlier than usual, threw his briefcase down any old place, took off his shoes, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a beer in the kitchen and flopped in front of the television, and said, “Sweetie, bring me some salami, please, I don’t want to miss the haka.” As far as missing the haka went, I had plenty of time to slice the salami and bring it to him; when I got back they were still showing commercials. Maman was sitting precariously on the arm of the sofa to show how she was against the whole business (in her holier-than-thou-left-wing-intellectual pose), and she was badgering Papa with some complicated story about a dinner party where the idea was to invite two couples who’d fallen out, in order to reconcile them. Given Maman’s psychological subtlety, this could be a very amusing undertaking. Anyway, I gave Papa his salami and, since I knew that Colombe was up in her room listening to music that was supposed to be enlightened avant-garde 5th arrondissement sort of stuff, I figured: after all, why not, let’s watch a little haka. What I knew was that haka is a sort of grotesque dance that the New Zealand team performs before the match. Sort of intimidation in the manner of the great apes. And I also knew that rugby is a heavy sort of game, with guys falling all over each other on the grass all the time only to stand up and fall down and get all tangled up a few feet further along. The commercials finally came to an end and after credits showing a lot of big beefcakes sprawled on the grass, we got a view of the entire stadium with the commentators’ voice-over and then a close-up of the commentators (all slavish cassoulet addicts) then back to the stadium. The players came onto the field and that’s when I got hooked. I didn’t really understand what was going on at first: there they were, all the usual images, but they had a new effect on me; they caused a kind of tingling, a sense of heady anticipation, sort of an “I’m holding my breath” feeling. Next to me Papa had already knocked back his first barley beer, and was preparing to carry on in good Gallic fashion by asking Maman, who had just got up from her sofa arm, to bring him another. As for me, I was holding my breath. “What’s going on?” I wondered, watching the screen, and I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing and what was giving me that tingling feeling. Then when the New Zealand players began their haka, I got it. In their midst was this very tall Maori player, really young. I’d had my eye on him right from the start, probably because of his height to begin with but then because of the way he was moving. A really odd sort of movement, very fluid but above all very focused, I mean very focused within himself. Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them. At this very moment, as I am writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the floor. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life and still she is heading toward something, probably an armchair. And you can tell from the way she’s moving: she is headed toward. Maman just went by in the direction of the front door, she’s going out shopping and in fact she already is out, her movement anticipating itself. I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something: we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move. But that player, when I saw him go out onto the field, I could tell there was something different about him. I got the impression that he was moving, yes, but by staying in one place. Crazy, no? When the haka began, I concentrated on him. It was obvious he wasn’t like the others. Moreover, Cassoulet Number 1 said, “And Somu, the formidable New Zealand fullback—what an impressive player, with a colossal build: six foot eight, and two hundred and sixty pounds, runs a hundred meters in eleven seconds, a fine specimen indeed, ladies!” Everyone was enthralled by him but no one seemed to know why. Yet it became obvious in the haka: he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players (slapping the palms of his hands on his thighs, rhythmically drumming his feet on the ground, touching his elbows, and all the while looking the adversary in the eyes like a mad warrior) but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium who were watching, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him, and that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity. And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him. What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals, it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered. That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance—everyone could feel it. And yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be as quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of, its deep roots. So I watched the game attentively, constantly on the lookout for the same thing: compact moments where a player became his own movement without having to fragment himself by heading toward. And I saw them! I saw them in every phase of the game: in the scrums, with one clear point of equilibrium, a player who found his roots, who became a solid little anchor giving his strength to the group; then in the phases of deployment, with a player who’d find the right speed without thinking any more about the goal, by concentrating on his own movement and running as if in a state of grace, with the ball stuck firm to his body; and in the trance of the place-kicker, cut off from the rest of the world in order to find the perfect foot movement. But none of them came near the perfection of the great Maori player. When he scored the first try for New Zealand, Papa sat there dumbfounded, his mouth wide open, his beer quite forgotten. He should have been completely pissed because he was rooting for the French team but instead, wiping his hand across his brow, he said, “What a player!” The commentators were sort of hungover but they couldn’t hide the fact that they’d seen something really beautiful: a player who was running without moving, leaving everyone else behind him. And the others, who seemed by comparison to move with frenzied and awkward gestures, were incapable of catching up with him. So I said to myself: There, I have managed to witness motionless movement in the world: is that something worth carrying on for? And at that very moment a French player lost his shorts in a maul and suddenly I felt totally depressed because it made everyone else laugh so hard they cried, including Papa who had himself another beer to celebrate, despite two centuries of Protestantism in the family. I felt as if something had been profaned. No, then, that won’t be enough. Further movements will be necessary to convince me. But at least this one has given me an idea. 2. On Wars and Colonies I have had no formal education, as I said in the preamble to these musings. Well, that is not exactly true. But my studious youth came to a halt at the certificate of studies, and before that time I was careful not to draw attention to myself—I was terribly frightened by the suspicions aroused in Mr. Servant, my teacher, when he discovered that I had been avidly devouring his newspaper, which was filled with nothing but wars and colonies—and I was not yet ten years old. Why? I do not know. Do you suppose I might really have continued? That is a question for the soothsayers of old. Let us just say that the idea of struggling to make my way in a world of privileged, affluent people exhausted me before I even tried: I was the child of nothing, I had neither beauty nor charm, neither past nor ambition; I had not the slightest savoir-faire or sparkle. There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger.   For those who have no appetite, the first pangs of hunger are a source of both suffering and illumination. As a child I was apathetic, a virtual invalid, my posture so poor you would have taken me for a hunchback, and I only managed to get through my everyday life thanks to my ignorance of any alternatives. My lack of interest verged on the void: nothing spoke to me, nothing aroused me and, like a helpless wisp borne this way and that upon some mysterious wind, I was not even aware of any desire to put an end to my existence. There was very little conversation in my family. The children shrieked and the adults went about their business just as they would have had they been alone. We ate our fill, somewhat frugally, we were not mistreated and our paupers’ rags were clean and sturdily mended so that even if we were ashamed, at least we did not suffer from the cold. But we did not speak. The revelation occurred when, at the age of five, going to school for the first time, I was both astonished and frightened to hear a voice speaking to me and saying my name. “Renée?” asked the voice, and I felt a friendly hand on mine. This happened in the hallway where, for the first day of school, they had gathered the children, as it was raining outside. “Renée?” I heard again the inflections of the voice above me, and felt the touch of the friendly hand—an incomprehensible language—still pressing lightly and tenderly on my arm. I raised my head, an unusual, almost dizzying movement, and met a pair of eyes. Renée. That meant me. For the first time, someone was talking to me, saying my name. Where my parents habitually merely gestured or grunted, here was a woman with clear eyes and a smiling mouth standing before me, and she was finding her way to my heart, saying my name, entering with me into a closeness I had not previously known existed. I looked around me and saw a world that was suddenly filled with colors. In one painful flash I became aware of the rain falling outside, the windows streaked with water, the smell of damp clothing, the confinement of the hallway, the narrow passageway vibrating with the press of pupils, the shine of the coatracks with their copper hooks where capes made of cheap cloth were hung close together, and the height of the ceiling which, to the eyes of a small child, was like that of the sky. So, with my doleful eyes glued to hers, I clung to the woman who had just brought me into the world. “Renée,” said the voice again, “don’t you want to take off your raincoat?” And, holding me firmly so I would not fall, she removed my clothes with the agility of long experience. We are mistaken to believe that our consciousness is awakened at the moment of our first birth—perhaps because we do not know how to imagine any other living state. It may seem to us that we have always seen and felt and, armed with this belief, we identify our entry into the world as the decisive instant where consciousness is born. The fact that for five years a little girl called Renée, a perfectly operational machine of perception blessed with sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, could have lived in a state of utter unawareness both of herself and of the universe, is proof if any were needed that such a hasty theory is wrong. For in order for consciousness to be aroused, it must have a name. However, a combination of unfortunate circumstances would seem to confirm that no one had ever thought of giving me my name. “You have such pretty eyes,” added the teacher, and I knew intuitively that she was not lying, that at that moment my eyes were shining with all their beauty and, to reflect the miracle of my birth, were sparkling with a thousand small fires. I began to tremble and searched her eyes for the complicity that shared joy can bring. In her gentle, kindly gaze I saw nothing but compassion. In the moment where I had at last come to life, I was merely pitied.   I was possessed. As my hunger could not be assuaged by playing the game of social interaction—an inconceivable aim, given my social condition (and it was at a later point in time that I would grasp the meaning of the compassion I saw in the eyes of my savior—for has one ever seen a girl raised in poverty penetrate the headiness of language deeply enough to share it with others?)—then it would be appeased by books. I touched one for the first time. I’d seen the older children in class look into books for invisible traces, as if they were driven by the same force and, sinking deeper into silence, they were able to draw from the dead paper something that seemed alive. Unbeknownst to all, I learned to read. When the teacher was still droning away with the letters of the alphabet to my classmates, I had already been long acquainted with the solidarity that weaves written signs together, the infinite combinations and marvelous sounds that had dubbed me a dame in this place, on that first day, when she had said my name. No one knew. I read as if deranged, at first in hiding and then, once it seemed to me that the normal amount of time to learn one’s letters had elapsed, out in the open for all to see, but I was careful to conceal the pleasure and interest that reading afforded me. The feeble child had become a hungry soul.   At the age of twelve I left school and worked at home and in the fields alongside my parents and my brothers and sisters. At seventeen I married. 3. The Poodle as Totem In the collective imagination, the couple formed by married concierges—a close-knit pair consisting of two entities so insignificant that only their union can make them apparent—will in all likelihood be the owners of a poodle. As we all know, poodles are a type of curly-haired dog preferred by petit bourgeois retirees, ladies very much on their own who transfer their affection upon their pet, or residential concierges ensconced in their gloomy loges. Poodles come in black or apricot. The apricot ones tend to be crabbier than the black ones, who on the other hand do not smell as nice. Though all poodles bark snappily at the slightest provocation, they are particularly inclined to do so when nothing at all is happening. They follow their master by trotting on their stiff little legs without moving the rest of their sausage-shaped trunk. Above all they have venomous little black eyes set deep in their insignificant eye-sockets. Poodles are ugly and stupid, submissive and boastful. They are poodles, after all. Thus the concierge couple, as served by the metaphor of their totemic poodle, seems to be utterly devoid of such passions as love and desire and, like their totem, destined to remain ugly, stupid, submissive and boastful. If, in certain novels, princes fall in love with working-class lasses, and princesses with galley slaves, between two concierges, even of the opposite sex, there is never any romance of the type that others experience and that might someday make a worthy story. Not only were we never the owners of a poodle, but I believe I can fairly assert that our marriage was a success. With my husband, I was myself. I think back on our little Sunday mornings with nostalgia, mornings blessed with restfulness where, in the silent kitchen, he would drink his coffee while I read. I married him at the age of seventeen following a swift but proper courtship. He worked at the factory, as did my older brothers, and stopped in many an evening on his way home to drink a coffee and a drop of something stronger. Alas, I was ugly. And yet that would not have played the slightest role had I been ugly the way others are ugly. But I bore the cruelty of my affliction alone: this ugliness that deprived me of any freshness, although I was not yet a woman, and caused me at the age of fifteen to resemble the woman I would be at the age of fifty. My stooped back, thick waist, short legs, widespread feet, abundant hair, and lumpy features—well, features lacking any shapeliness or grace—might have been overlooked for the sake of the youthful charm granted to even the most unprepossessing amongst us—but no, at the age of twenty I already qualified as an old biddy. Thus, when the intentions of my future husband became clear and it was no longer possible for me to ignore them, I opened my heart to him, speaking frankly for the first time to someone other than my own self, and I confessed to him how astonished I was that he might conceive of wanting to marry me.

Editorial Reviews

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERINDIEBOUND TOP TEN BESTSELLERA WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEARA CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR BEST BOOK OF THE YEARA BARNES AND NOBLE BET BOOK OF THE YEARA CHICAGO SUN-TIMES FAVORITE BOOK OF THE YEARPraise for The Elegance of the Hedgehog Gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bitersweet."-Michael Dirda, The Washington Post " The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about love. But not the sappy, head-over-heels variety. Rather, it's about the love of one's friends. It's about the love you can experience when you connect with strangers. And it's about the possibility-but just that-of romantic love."- The Huffington Post "Both [of the book's protagonists] create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renee with the erudition and Paloma with adolescent brio." -The New York Times "Astute social satire and abstruse German philosophy are rarely found together, but here they are in this ingenious work of fiction." -The Boston Globe "In this supple novel of ideas, a best-seller in France... two autodidacts share an allergy to grammatical errors (the concierge considers a misplaced comma an 'underhanded attack') and a love of tea and moments of ineffable beauty. Barbery's sly wit, which bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations, keeps her tale aloft." -The New Yorker "This fable of love, frienship and the beauty of art not only gives innocence a voice, but also shows what a powerful novel can do: transport, educate and, ultimately, console."- The Toronto Star " The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a high-wire performance."- Los Angeles Times "[ The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells] a beautiful story with a large cast of fascinating, complicated characters whose behavior is delightfully unpredictable... No idea is too big or small to find a home in the Parisian apartment building where most of the characters live." -The Wall Street Journal "This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the English debut of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery... By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts." -Publishers Weekly " Hedgehog is really an international book, focused as it is on universal topics of childhood, philosophy, love, and art."- The Daily Beast "This story, like all great tales, will break your heart, but it will also make you realize-or remember-that sometimes the pain is worth it." -Chicago Sun-Times "