‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a literary novel, set in an expensive Left Bank apartment block in Paris. The hedgehog is the despised concierge, Renee Michel, apparently the stereotype of her profession. She looks dowdy, appears slow of intellect, owns a cat and the sound of her television blares from her flat. Her tenants are all wealthy, well-educated, snobs and fashionably left-wing. The story is told by Renee Michel herself and through the journals of Paloma Josse, an eleven year old girl living in one of the apartments (Renee in serif font, Paloma in san serif). These two are the only two characters with whom the reader gets to know well.
Renee was born into a family of backward country peasants, who hardly spoke to one another and never addressed each other by name. Renee deliberately gives the impression of still being that peasant, carefully concealing that she is cultured and well-read. In fact, she is hungry for learning, someone who understands what she reads, but with a different slant, seeing as she is unschooled. Her only friend is the Portuguese cleaner, Manuela, who, Renee adjudges to be an aristocrat because she insists on having a plate and a tablecloth when eating a walnut. Renee is however a likable character who rapidly gains the reader’s sympathy.
Paloma Joffe defines herself by the people around her. Papa, a republican politician, enjoys coffee, many different newspapers and rugby and has conscience qualms about putting his elderly mother in a home. Maman spends three hours a day watering her houseplants and has been in analysis for ten years, not with a proper medic but, according to Paloma, ‘just a leftie’. Maman loves to reminisce about the Evenements of 1968. Paloma reserves her bitterest opprobrium for her elder sister, Colombe, an arrogant teenager who enjoys all the privileges of wealth yet effects to despise them. She wears grunge clothes, with holes, which, in Renee’s opinion, belittle the aspirations of the less well off. Colombe knocks on the concierge’s door at seven am, to tell her about an expected courier delivery, and is full of self-righteous indignation when Renee refuses to speak to her until the lodge opens at eight.
For a large part of the book, Paloma, who seems to believe she is too good for the world and her family, comes over as someone as entitled and snobby as everyone else. She is considering committing suicide in a year’s time and, at the same time, burning down the apartment block where they all live. It takes a while for the reader to grow to like Paloma and to appreciate her innocence, through her ‘Profound Thoughts’ (all numbered) and her ‘Journal of Movement of All the World’. Only in the later sections do we realise that Paloma is only eleven and a half and that she is a geeky kid in pink-framed glasses. Moreover, we don’t get to know her name until very late on.
The only other character who features majorly is the Japanese filmmaker, Kazuko Ozu, the newest man in the block, who appears only half way through the novel. The antithesis of all the other residents, he is studiously courteous in a very Asian way and appears to be without class consciousness, is very well read and cultured, as well as being rich. To my mind, he is just too good to be believable.
The author describes very effectively the pretentiousness and sense of entitlement of the wealthy left-wing establishment. Renee is offended by the I’m-so-left-wing-I’m-speaking-to-the-concierge tone.
The writing style is intense, self-consciously literary, and the action slow-moving, insofar as there is action at all. For me the lack of plot-line undermines some excellent characterisation. It is said, repeatedly, that literature is ‘all about character’. This novel, I’m afraid, disproves this maxim.
Steel yourself for the shocking ending!
I award this book three stars only.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog can be purchased from Gallic (through Belgravia Publishing) he
re. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.