Monday, October 19, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I want to talk to you today about an excellent and charming little book by a French author, Muriel Barbery, entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s possible that my own love of philosophy influences me more than it should in my assessment of this novel, but I think any passionate reader will fall in love with the two lead characters—both brilliant and lucid, and both (for quite different reasons) finding it necessary to hide their intellectual acuity from the world.

Paloma is a twelve year old girl living in a luxurious Paris hotel who has found it expedient, even necessary, to hide her extreme intelligence from her teachers, her friends, even her family. After all, at the ripe old age of twelve she has already discovered the absurdity of existence, and has decided without pathos to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday and to simultaneously set fire to her building. When I was first introduced to this character, I found myself flinching, withdrawing, thinking this novel would simply serve to reinforce a confusion (especially in the U.S) between nihilism and existentialism. In my view, existentialism is a guardedly optimistic philosophy that insists that the denial of an external telos (a human-independent purpose for existence) does not at all entail that life is without meaning. We make our lives meaningful through our actions rather than through fulfilling some sort of purpose given from on high. Fortunately, we soon discover that Paloma is simply in what might be called the descent phase of existentialism, discovering that meaning-guaranteeing myths are just that, myths that need to be overcome. Next comes the ascent phase in which one discovers that meaning is created rather than discovered. But in order for her to ascend, she must (as the heroes of all existentialist novels discover) leave her nihilist-leaning isolation and find others.

Her ascent begins when she discovers (or is discovered by) the hotel concierge, a self-described autodidact who has, herself, found it necessary to hide her intelligence and her secret reading of the most esoteric philosophers in order to disappear into her role as hotel concierge. The wealthy people for whom she works expect concierges to be dull-witted and to spend their time when not serving their superiors by watching endless hours of soap opera while dining on cabbage soup and other poor man’s fare. In fact Renee, the concierge, leaves her soap-opera blaring t.v. in one room, a decoy for any of the tenants who might pass by, while hiding out in another reading Descartes, Kant, Husserl and munching on delicacies she should not even know of. Commenting on instructions received from one of the hotel tenants, Renee remarks,
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.
Paloma, who sees herself as an intellectual who makes fun of other intellectuals, is particularly contemptuous of her family who profess socialist ideas and vote with the socialist party, but who live a luxurious and wasteful life and act finally as if poverty were a personal sin rather than a function of market economies. Her mother, in particular, is the target of Paloma’s contempt; she has spent a fortune on her ten years of psychoanalysis, but has little to show for it. “As far I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering.”

The lives of both Paloma and Renee are profoundly affected when one of the longtime tenants of the hotel dies and a rich Japanese man first completely refurbishes and then moves into the vacated space. His name is Ozu, and simply because he really attends to those around him, really looks at them, he quickly sees through the facades of both Renee and Paloma, but instead of blowing their covers, he befriends both and acts as a sort of catalyst in helping them to find new lives, even, if this is not too grand a word, to find their salvations.

For the most part, this is a comedic novel; the reader is meant to laugh at the world as seen through the eyes of these delightful characters. But it also seems to me to be a deeply serious look at social class, biological determinism, the purpose of art, and finally even the meaning of life. Like so many existentialist heroes, Paloma’s first steps towards transcendence, her emergence from the despair of nihilism, is via art—first simply hearing a choir performance by her school peers and next via the simplicity and elegance of Japanese haikus. Allowing herself to be discovered by Renee, and at the same time seeing through Renee’s camouflage, takes her to the next step. And Renee, who has always lived in profound isolation after the death of her fellow-concierge husband, discovers through her friendship with Ozu and Paloma that she can finally look at the ugly events of her own childhood—events that have kept her in hiding—and emerge from her isolation to construct a meaningful life in and through others. 

In short, this is a delightful book, perhaps the best that I have read all year.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Every year or two or three a book comes along that is so good, so astounding, that I hesitate to even talk about it, knowing that my words cannot do it justice, and that even the effort might in some way profane the book. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, is just such a book. Thirty pages into this dense and profound little work, I knew I had to read everything Strout has written which, unfortunately, consists of only two other earlier novels. I have already gobbled up the first and started on the second; no doubt I will be talking to you about those books in the future.

The stories in this volume are all about what would be called ordinary people in a small town in Maine. Olive, a retired schoolteacher, appears somewhere in each story, and if you choose to read this book, I predict that you will anxiously await her entrance into each story. It is misleading to say that the stories are about ordinary people, because, like Alice Munro, another incredible writer of our time, what Strout shows us is the extraordinary complexity of each of her characters. I suppose one would say that the stories are written in first-person narratives, and each voice is utterly convincing. But through some magic that Strout possesses, the voices are not quite first person; the very complexity and contradictory nature of emotions that pass through each character (while experiencing what, from the outside, would appear to be everyday, even mundane events) requires a kind of second-person view. Few of us would admit or even be aware of just how conflicting our own emotional reactions are to events that occur—how anger and joy often fuse, how envy and admiration follow in such quick succession that we, ourselves, could not say honestly which is the dominant feeling.

Olive is a believable and wonderful a character; she is at once angry, spiteful, impatient, inconsiderate, deeply empathetic, wise, and kind. Strout refuses to do what so many writers do; she refuses to create heroes who are unmixed good fighting against others who are sinister and dark. Olive is light and dark, kind and merciless, incredibly strong and utterly lonely and weak. She is dogmatic and opinionated, a stern math teacher feared by her students and yet remembered and in some sense admired by all or most of them as well.

It is no mistake that I mention Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout in the same breath, nor was I surprised to see that Munro reviewed Strout’s first book, calling it “a novel of shining integrity and humor, about the bravery and hard choices of what is called ordinary life.” I see Munro as quite literally the finest living author, and that I put Strout in her company is the highest praise I can give. Both write usually of small towns and unremarkable people, and both spin out stories that scintillate with a deep understanding of love and loneliness and fear of death.

Some books can be, if not captured, at least summed up by quoting a few passages or by describing general themes. Not so with Strout. To appreciate her greatness and her insights, one must read page by page, emotion by emotion. Still, let me see if I can say a bit about a couple of the stories that may entice you to read her. Death and dying are central to this book just as they are to real life. In one sad but lovely sketch, Strout describes the grocer’s wife, Marlene Bonney and the funeral of her husband Ed. Olive attends the funeral partly because she knows that her own husband, Henry, would have wanted her to go, though he has suffered a stroke and is in a care facility, blind and silent and vacant. But quite apart from what Henry might have wanted, “…she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.” Instead, she hears how Marlene and her husband, even as he was suffering from an incurable illness, would bring out a basket filled with travel brochures, would talk of all the places that they wanted to go, all the trips they would take. None of the trips are taken; Ed dies, leaving Olive to wonder, “Who, who, does not have their basket of trips? It isn’t right, Molly Collins said that today, standing out by the church. It isn’t right. Well. It isn’t.”

Henry, Olive’s husband, is as sweet and optimistic as Olive is astringent and pessimistic, and his very sweetness and optimism gall Olive, provoking her to lash out at him and at his kindness to others. When their only child, a son, finally marries, Henry immediately accepts the new wife, feeling relief for his son. Olive’s reactions are much more mixed as she chafes against the know-it-all new wife.
Of course, right now their sex life is probably very exciting, and they undoubtedly think that will last, the way new couples do. They think they’re finished with loneliness, too.
This thought causes Olive to nod her head slowly as she lies on the bed. She knows that loneliness can kill people—in different ways can actually make you die. Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.
Yes, life itself is tricky business, as Olive and Strout well know. I suppose I could say that Strout is the master of describing the little bursts that keep us going, the little bursts that hold loneliness at bay, at least for the moment. One such little burst occurs for Olive late in life, after the death of her husband and the emotional distancing of her son. It comes in the form of a new and unexpected relationship with a man who has also lost most everything.
What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.
Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.