Thursday, September 18, 2008

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" (L'eleganza del riccio) by Muriel Barbery

Year of publication: 2006
Genre: novel,
Setting and time: Paris, present time
Themes: culture, classism, philosophy, friendship, social conventions, hypocrisy

About the author: Muriel Barbery was born in 1969 in Bayeux, France. She teaches philosophy at IUFM in Saint-Lô. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is her second novel. In France and Italy it was a best seller. It has just been published in the UK.

Plot: Renée, an 54-year-old plump concierge in a Parisian block of luxury apartments, and Paloma, a precocious girl who plans to commit suicide on the day of her 13th birthday, are the main character of this French novel. Renée must maintain her lowly position in the pecking order so that she can keep her job: she is an autodidact who adores Tolstoy, is a devotee of Japanese cinema and listens to Mahler. The inhabitants of 7 Rue de Grenelle would, apparently, be scandalised if they found out that their lonely, dowdy concierge was getting up to all these intellectual high jinks.

Some thoughts: There is a nice article about this novel on The Guardian (read it here). It explains that fiction in translation doesn’t sell in the UK and that very little is translated into English. The same complaint has been made about translations from Spanish in the US (see this post). In Italy, it is quite the opposite: novels in translation do sell a huge lot. The Guardian says that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is too introspective and subtle to appeal to British readers, adding that British and American readers “want plot”. This novel is certainly cerebral and a bit too philosophical, but I don’t think that British readers dislike novels with nothing but witty thoughts. Maybe they’re not as familiar with philosophy as French readers must be.
However, it surprised me that this novel was a huge bestseller in Italy, because it’s not the usual romance (Moccia) or mystery book (Dan Brown): you need to be familiar with philosophy, art cinema and Russian literature in order to really enjoy some parts of the book. As for myself, I have read Anna Karenina but I haven’t seen Ozu’s Sisters Munekata or studied much philosophy. The book constantly ‘winks’ at the reader, mentioning this painter or that French thinker, which is nice at the beginning but it becomes a bit tiring in the end. Despite mentioning so much culture, the book only treads the line between literary and commercial fiction, without becoming too ‘difficult’. It is an enjoyable read all in all, but nothing special.
The ending kind of disappointed me: the author just seems to kill off the characters – quite literally – because she didn’t know what to do with them. The two main characters had great potential and I was fond of Renée by the end of the book, but I think that some of the minor characters were a bit stereotyped (either very dull and stupid or over-intellectual and snob).
In conclusion, this is an average novel, certainly overestimated in France and probably under read in Britain.


  1. vengo sempre con piacere ad aggiornarmi sugli ultimi percorsi letterari... l'arte della parola è la sola arma che dovremmo usare tutti... buon weekend, ciao

  2. Mi fa piacere che tu condivida le tue opinioni. Qualcuno ha detto che se la gente che comanda il mondo avesse letto più libri probabilmente vivremmo in un posto migliore. Sono parole confortanti, anche se qualche volta non mi sembra che possa essere vero. Poi vedo Roberto Saviano e capisco...

  3. ma l'originale e' in inglese?
    o in francese?

    bel post comunque. ;-P

  4. L'originale è in francese: "L'elegance du herisson" se non sbaglio. Io ho scritto il nome del libro in italiano così gli italiani che leggono il blog vedono subito di cosa si tratta (come se non si capisse dall'immagine, vabbè). Non penso che ci siano francesi che leggono il mio blog in inglese e italiano...
    Spero anche che qualcuno in Inghilterra o USA cominci a leggere qualche romanzo in traduzione. E' estremamente riduttivo leggere solo le cose scritte in inglese (anche se hai una scelta vastissima)...

  5. quanto hai ragione!

    te lo chiedevo perche' mi pareva strano che una scrittrice francese scrivesse in inglese.
    e poi perche' se me lo compro in originale, volevo sapere qual'e' la lingua da scegliere! ;-)

    buoni preparativi per la partenza (ormai siamo agli sgoccioli eh!)

    un abbraccio


  6. Salve a tutti. Ho sentito parlare in giro di un libro Fantasy intitolato Stigmergy. Dicono che vale la pena. Voi ne sapete qualcosa? Dove potrei comprarlo in inglese? Grazie!

    Simonetta Frari, Cremona

  7. Ciao. Io non leggo il genere Fantasy, ma immagino che il libro si possa comprare su
    Basta una carta prepagata postepay o simile.
    Altrimenti prova