Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On Movement, Mirrors, and Recognition

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Some books are made greater by discussion.  I wasn't too sure about how I felt about Elegance of the Hedgehog when I finished.  It reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so my first thought was, is this a European thing?

Let me say I was immediately charmed by the philosophical analysis not usually expected of such characters.  Indeed, Madame Marcel appears to thrive on her secret internal existence.  Externally visible as a frumpy, dull concierge, in her private rooms she finds sustenance from the finer efforts of the human brain.

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.
Her mirror, a 12 year old girl too wise for her own good (she plans to commit suicide, having already reduced her existence logically to a nihilistic existentialism), sees into the crafty concierge:
As for Madame Michel . . . how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. ...Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.
The best thing about this book are the amazingly insightful sentences.  Hey...I'm no slouch when it comes to the vocabulary, but I was checking the dictionary often (these are the times when one loves the Kindle).  Just check out this dig:
...enough of phenomenology: it is nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness, a hard-core autism that no real cat would ever importune.
The cats are mostly related to Tolstoy, if their names are anything to go by.

The first thing mentioned at our book group was that we had to talk about the ending...but to get there we had to backtrack and figure out the characters.  Just what did being a hedgehog mean?  Let's review phenomenology, and how the understanding of it is affected by the haphazard studies of an autodidactic.  Let's make sure we understand the insight about movement and people as mirrors by Paloma, the 12 year old, who sees a hedgehog because she herself is one.  Finally, in one of those best moments of a book discussion group, as we're still trying to fulfill the Meaning of It All, I ask, a natural question in the flow of the conversation, I ask, "Is this book about Recognition?"  One of the others asks, "You mean of one character to another?"  "Not just that, but recognition with a capital R...recognition of movement, recognition of ritual, recognition of a hedgehog..."  This question was met with enthusiasm, so I think we got to the heart of it.

I didn't say, didn't need to, but I was also thinking of our Zen Buddist Recognition Ceremony.  There were definitely some Zen moments in this book.  The third main character, more mysterious as we don't get first-hand thoughts from him, was Japanese.  To me, this Recognition of the eternal nature of another, this is the essence of this book.  Once you get a handle on that, the mysteries sort of fall into place, and it becomes a much better book, rather than simply a cryptic one.

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