The Elegance of the Hedgehog
In June, BBC’s Radio 3 polled listeners on their favorite aria. If you’re into opera, you might guess Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” or "Un bel di” soared to the top of the list, or maybe “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. But the winner surprised everyone; it was a three-century old song from a relatively obscure opera by Henry Purcell. Officially, England’s most
I'll read anything as long as it's a good yarn. During a recent vacation, I tore through a potboiler about a jogger attacked by a genetically altered polar bear. I wouldn't recommend it. Then I read an adventure novel from a dollar store. The experience supports the adage, “You get what you pay for.”
But on the same trip I discovered The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa, 2006.) Translated from the original French by Alison Anderson, the novel presents two characters whose needs and wants converge.
Stout, ugly Renee is a concierge in a Parisian hotel where she poses as a witless soap opera fan. But behind closed doors, she's addicted to art, music, philosophy, and Japanese culture. She hides her passions until a subtle slip involving two cats and Anna Karenina reveals her secret.
The second major character is a resident of the same hotel. Brilliant, twelve year-old Paloma observes adults and decides they all lead lives of quiet desperation. She resolves to end her life on her thirteenth birthday.
Sounds grim, but I often laughed out loud. It's funny. Each chapter advances the plot, and some offer marvelous nuggets about art and music.
Renee studies a still life by Pieter Claesz depicting a table set for a light meal of bread and oysters. A half-pared lemon shines on a silver plate.
“We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory and our doom,” Renee reflects. “but when we gaze at a still life . . . we delight in its beauty . . . we find pleasure in the fact that there was no need for desire.”
“Art is emotion without desire,” she thinks.
Later, she listens to a recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. When she hears the bit at the death of Dido, she thinks this is the most stunning music on earth.
“There is a beauty in these sounds no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds. Broken sounds, melting sounds.”
Such sounds break our defenses.
Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog brushes deep mysteries with a light touch. I loved it.