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Book Review: "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

3 March 2022

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Trey and I finished another book last night – both of us, at the same time, just before we met via Zoom to discuss it. It seemed in its wake that we both were stricken. As though we’d seen a tsunami wipe out a small town, we both sat, emotionally depleted, air sucked from our lungs. There was simultaneously so much to say but just – no words would suffice. The ending will do that to you – be forewarned (thus I won’t discuss it here).

The book is a work of art, obviously. However, it does not escape me what Barbery has accomplished in ensuring this. Perhaps the most potent message of her book centers upon the purpose and place of Art in life. Yet there is another undercurrent, too…an admission that in order to save the world, we must first save ourselves; and, moreover, that some people are so far gone they are beyond saving.

Between the covers rides this tension of the moment when now becomes then, when things cease – and beauty lies in such tension. Indeed, that life is strife – suffering – and ephemeral is what makes it also sublime. Paloma writes about the “puff” of a falling rose petal, “Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death…Maybe that’s what being alive is all about: so we can track down those moments that are dying” (272-273). Such is our calling, to appreciate these moments; but moreover, to capture them in Art for eternity – immortally.

Appreciation is step one. But capturing that moment is the next step. Renée and Karuko illustrate why as they admire Pieter Claesz’s masterpiece (a copy), “Still Life with Oysters.” When considering this piece afterward, Renée journals, “What does Art do for us? It gives shape to our emotions, makes them visible and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them, a seal representing all those works that, by means of that particular form, have incarnated the universal nature of human emotions” (203). In essence, there is nothing of this world that is truly within our control – least of all, time. Nevertheless, as we are called to appreciate the ephemerality of beauty, by transforming it into Art, we can halt time – transcend both time and space in appreciation of the sublime: we can capture it.

The third step of this, as it unfolds over the course of the story, is perhaps of equal importance to both appreciating and capturing beauty: we must share it! In Renée, our favorite recluse, we see a life transformed once she can finally connect with others who share the same appreciation of raw (and captured) beauty: Karuko and Paloma. Certainly, Renée enjoyed the pleasures of beauty on her own, in secret, but those pleasures turned to ecstasies when she began to share them, as a form of communion, with others. This rapture is most vividly illustrated in the laughing fit she and Karuko share after Mozart’s Requiem:

“We are still looking at each other, exhaling ever more unrestrained ooh ooh oohs from our lungs. Every time they begin to subside, we look at each other and are off on the next round. My guts are paralyzed, and tears are streaming down Monsieur Ozu’s cheeks.” (222)

But this is only one of many instances where Renée, Paloma, and Karuko find divine comfort in sharing beauty between them. Of course, when we consume (or appreciate) beauty and Art alone, we do share that with its creator – yet most often, the creator of such Art is someone inaccessible to us. This communion is not insubstantial; however, it is static – or if not, the exchange is mostly imagination. Barbery emphasizes the value in live communion in appreciation of beauty and Art: there is nothing more gratifying than sharing this human experience – this poised balance between the now and the then – with those we love. This is the meaning of life.

This seems so hopeful – and it is! Yet, there are too many roaming this crusty globe blind to beauty – and thus, bereft of meaningful life. Barbery knows this. Barbery warns us that we’ll encounter some who wear blindfolds; she tells us to be aware of these people, to see them, to notice them, and yet neither to absorb their blindness nor blame ourselves for it. Her treatment of such people is straightforward. It contains no malice, yet it is astute. Barbery shows this through Paloma’s eyes, which, as a child of 12, “from the mouths of babes,” we can accept more easily than if they came from an adult. Paloma journals,

“I have to admit that Monsieur Arthens is a truly nasty man. Papa is just a kid who’s playing the dead serious grown-up. But Monsieur Arthens…a first class truly nasty man. When I say nasty, I don’t mean unkind or cruel or tyrannical, thought there is a bit of that too. No, when I say, “he’s a truly nasty man,” I mean he has so thoroughly renounced everything good that he might have inside him that he’s already like a corpse even though he’s still alive. Because truly nasty people hate everyone, to be sure, but most of all themselves. Can’t you tell when a person hates himself? He becomes a living cadaver, it numbs all his negative emotions but also all the good ones so that he won’t feel nauseated by who he is.” (93)

Thus, Barbery reinforces the value of appreciating, capturing, and sharing beauty: if we do not, we become living cadavers. The crazy thing about this is that Paloma notices for Arthens that it begins within. This is a core truth that I can validate from my own experience with people like Arthens: If we do not first appreciate, capture, and share the beauty we find within ourselves, we can never begin to do so with others! The journey starts within. Love yourself, or you cannot ever love others. This mirrors one of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes, “I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, 'I love you.' ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” Indeed. Love yourself first.

Barbery’s final point on this matter is one of resigned, sober hope: help where you can, but do not blame yourself for those beyond hope. She illustrates this through Paloma’s existential crisis:

“I understood that I was suffering because I couldn’t make anyone else around me feel better…because I’m incapable of being useful to them, because there’s nothing I can do for them. They are already too far gone in their sickness, and I am too weak…This story is a tragedy after all. “There are some worthy people out there, be glad!” is what I felt like telling myself, but in the end, so much sadness! They end up in the rain. I really don’t know what to think. Briefly, I thought I had found my calling, I thought I’d understood that in order to heal, I could heal others, or at least the other “healable” people, the ones who can be saved – instead of moping because I can’t save other people. So what does this mean – I’m supposed to become a doctor? Or a writer? It’s a bit the same thing, no?” (291)

Paloma despairs for people beyond help, beyond saving. At the same time, she heeds the calling to help those who can still be saved. There is so much wisdom in this – not the least in the comparison between doctor and writer. Even Monsieur Arthens shows us that some people are unworthy of our efforts; it wasn’t until after Arthens’s death that his son, Jean, is finally able to clean up his life, detox from substances, and begin to see beauty, “Because a camellia can change fate” (295). Arthens was beyond saving, yet his son was not – and Renée witnessed this; Renée facilitated his rehabilitation.

What I want to scream at Paloma after the excerpt above is – don’t give up faith! Know where your efforts are wasted and avoid attempting to help those beyond healing but continue with hope. Find those who can still be saved and save them! You may not be able to fix the entire world but do everything you can to fix what lies within your sphere of influence. Do what you can. If each of us would just do what we can, you’d be amazed how that combined effort adds up. As my husband always reminds me, “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

This is another selection that will remain close to my writer’s desk – as much as it settled close to my heart. This book is not just some great life advice; it is philosophy: how to live. You know these lessons are universal in the way that they’re echoed through philosophical texts all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Yeah. Fucking five stars. Trey is allowed to choose my books for me for the rest of my life, now.

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