The Masks We Wear

“First impressions never last.” Who hasn’t heard of this ubiquitous string of words? We always like to think that we know and understand the people we encounter on a daily basis. We presume that we fathom every nook and cranny of their profiles. We think that our first glimpses into their personalities already make us an authority at understanding human nature. However, as we get to know them more, the images we have sketched in our minds are slowly proven wrong. There is more to the individuals we easily dismissed because of how they presented themselves. The one who always seemed happy has deeper pains she conceals behind her laughter. The one we thought was always composed has vulnerabilities he/she refuses to show. It suddenly hits us like a splash of cold water. Behind the unprepossessing feature is a deeper story, a deeper person. If only we learn to see beyond our biases, we will begin to see how each of us possesses deeper and more complex personalities. It is these complexities that make each of us unique.

In French novelist Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, we meet an ordinary woman who often finds herself overlooked. She is fifty-four yead old Renée Michel. For the past 27 years, she has served as the concierge at a Left Bank apartment building at number 7, Rue de Grenelle, a high-class address in Paris. The apartment building, with its courtyard and private gardens, was divided into eight luxury apartments which were all occupied by an eclectic mix of bourgeois families, among them some powerful and influential individuals. Despite serving the residents for nearly three decades, Renée often finds herself overlooked. This arrangement, however, did not bother her as she did not want to draw attention to herself. She has unimpressionable physical attributes and, as such, described herself: “I am a widow, I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth.”

What secrets lie hidden behind the inscrutable facade that makes her amenable to simply being a wallflower? As the story moved forward, a portrait of Renée, simply referred to as Madame Michel by the residents, started to emerge. Her story began in the French countryside where she was raised in destitution. She was forced to stop her studies in order to help her family earn a living. However, this handicap did not stop her from learning on her own. In clandestine, she developed into an autodidact, immersing mostly in works of philosophy and literature. However, she had to obscure this from her family. At the age of seventeen, she got married to a factory worker and eventually moved to the apartment building where they both served as concierges. Her husband, however, passed away due to cancer. Despite this, not a lot has changed as she still concealed her autodidactism lest she be condemned by the building’s tenant. She finds peace and contentment in being left alone to her own devices, in melding into the background.

“If people could climb hhigher in the social hierarchy in proportion to their incompetence, I guarantee the world would not go round the way it does. But that’s not even the problem. What this sentence means isn’t that incompentent people have found their place in the sun, but nothing is harder or more unfair than human reality; huans live in a world where its words and not deeds that have power, where the ultimate skill is the mastery of language. This is a terrible thing because we are primates who’ve been programmed to eat, sleep, reproduce, conquer and make our territory safe, and the ones who are most gifted at that, the most animal types amons us, always get shafted by the others, the fine talkers, despite the latter being incapable of defending their own garden or brining a rabbit home for dinner or procreating properly. Humans live in a world where the weak are dominant”

~ Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Providing contrast to the story of Renée is the story of twelve-year-old Paloma Josse. Paloma was the youngest of two daughters of the Josses who occupy the fifth floor of the apartment building. Unlike Renée, Paloma was born into an affluent family and was afforded several privileges and luxuries Renée did not have, such as education in a top-notch school. She was also intelligent, more advanced than her peers. Paloma’s keenness and astuteness made her see through the veil of superficiality that wrapped the world she was born into. The glitzy and glamorous world of the bourgeois was a life she refused to be a part of. She also found the snobbery of her parents – a father who works for the parliament and a mother with a penchant for Gustave Flaubert – and her older sister insufferable. She feels nothing but disdain at the snobbery and self-indulgence that seemed to characterize nearly every occupant of the apartment building. It was a world she desperately wanted to obliterate, even if it meant taking her own life in the process.

The two worlds that Renée and Paloma started to come alive through their alternating perspectives. There existed a glaring disparity between them, from their upbringing to their personalities. Renée’s timid nature was an antithesis to Paloma’s angsty and rebellious voice. Despite the palpable dichotomies, they nevertheless shared several similarities, the biggest of which is their common desire to not be noticed or scrutinized by the people around them. They would rather dissolve into their own world than be involved with the hubbub surrounding them. To escape intensive scrutiny, they both wear proverbial masks: Renée in her unassuming position as the apartment building’s concierge and Paloma in her rebelliousness, a trait shared by her fellow teenagers. While there were intrusions, the vastness of the building provided Renée and Paloma the necessary private spaces they both yearned for.

The relative peace that existed at the apartment building was altered when a new occupant entered their midst. Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu moved into one of the luxurious units when it was vacated by its occupant following the death of their patriarch, a beloved restaurant critic; they were long-time residents. Ozu, at the start, was an object of curiosity among the residents because of his background. He was, after all, the only non-French occupant. His entrance into the tightly-knit world of number 7, Rue de Grenelle represented a huge change that inevitably affected the dynamics of its occupants, including Renée and Paloma. He, nevertheless, managed to establish rapport with everyone but it was Renée who captured his interest. With his keen sense of observation, he managed to see through the masks Renée was wearing. Paloma, in her own, managed to uncover Renée’s refinement even before Ozu became part of their life. Together, Paloma and Ozu tried to lure her out of her echo chambers. How would Renée, an individual who basks in her hermetical existence, react to their discovery?

Despite the dichotomies that existed between Renée and Paloma, their story was woven together by philosophical intersections. In a way, Barbery, who possesses a degree in philosophy, made her presence felt as The Elegance of the Hedgehog abounded with references to philosophies that covered a vast ground of topics such as our daily lives, the pets we own, politics, social inequities, and life in general. These references were essential to Renée’s self-education as she read the works of German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl. These intersections and references gave the narrative an interesting complexion and texture. There were some contrasts in the views of the two main characters owing to their different background. However, these contrasts provided profound lenses upon which to understand their own world.

“We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognise each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually reaised this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only looking at ourselves in the other person that we are are alone in this wolderness, we should go crazy.”

~ Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The arts and literature were common interests that the main characters shared. Renée’s extensive reading resume includes impressive volumes such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Her love for literature influenced how she named her cats: the first cat she named Karenina (or Karé for short) after Tolstoy’s heroine, the second was named Dongo after the main protagonist in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and, the latest, Leo after the famed Russian writer. Her cultural refinement extended beyond literature as she admired 17th-century Dutch paintings and listened to the music composed by Henry Purcell and Gustav Mahler. A common thread that binds Renée and Paloma together is their interest in Japanese culture, making Ozu’s entry into their world a welcome development. These cultural touchstones were some of the novel’s finer facets.

An integral part of the novel’s philosophical elements revolved around beauty, and appreciation for it. One of its manifestations was the camellia flower, one of the novel’s leitmotif. The first part of the novel, post-preamble, carried the flower’s name. Generally, camellias symbolize love, affection, and admiration but for Renée, it was the quintessence of exquisite beauty. One of the few luxuries that she allowed herself, she cultivated her own plot of camellias. However, the flower does not reduce itself into a mere allusion to beauty. In the latter parts of the novel, the son of a former tenant approached Madame Michel. When he was a resident, he dealt with a serious drug addiction problem but managed to recover from it. He credited the camellias as a positive influence to his recovery: “In the flower bed, over there, there are some pretty little red and white flowers, you planted them there, didn’t you? And one day I asked you what they were but I wasn’t able to remember the name. And yet I used to think about those flowers all the time, I don’t know why. They’re nice to look at, and when I was so bad off  I would think about those flowers and it did me good.”

As the novel focuses on the two primary protagonists, The Elegance of the Hedgehog came across as a character study. Barbery provided two complex psychological profiles in Renée and Paloma. They were hiding their true selves, lest their inner peace is scrutinized by prying eyes. Renée’s fear of discovery was the most pervasive, driven by her view that the lower class should not dare mix in with the bourgeois. Their case was a depiction of class consciousness, with an elaboration on the social hierarchy that persists in modern French society. This social structure can also be gleaned in the living arrangements; Renée occupies the lowest portion of the building. However, both primary characters possess an air of superiority, even intellectual snobbery, that distanced them from some readers. Barbery subtly provided contexts upon which to understand this feeling of superiority. The most palpable was Renée and Paloma being wide readers. However, what elevated them is their appreciation and understanding of the mundane, of things other people find dull if they notice them at all.

Renée referred to her story as a series of musings. It alternated with Paloma’s story which came in the form of two journals: Journal of the Movement of the World in which she shared her observations of the world around her, and Profound Thoughts in which she shared her reflections on a variety of subjects such as art, music, and herself. The transitions between narrators were marked by switches in typefaces. The story, however, does take time to develop. The first three parts of the novel – Camellias, On Grammar, and Summer Rain – were chiefly concerned with laying out the landscape of the story. The plot was relatively thin in these three parts, with nothing of consequence developing. It wasn’t until the last part, Paloma, that a semblance of a plot started to take shape. It was also in this part that Renée and Paloma’s individual threads converged; ironically, despite the length of the first three parts, they have rarely interacted with each other. Ozu was seminal in bringing these two threads together.

“Personally, I think there is only one thing to do: find the task we have been plaecd on this earth to do, and accomplish it as best we can, with all our strengths, without making things complicated or thinking there’s anything divine about our animal nature. This is the only way we will ever feel that we have been doing something constructive when death comes to get us. Freedom, choice, will, and so on? Chimeras. We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of beees, but we are in truth nothing but poor bees, destine to accomplish our task and then die.”

~ Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog sounded like an unconventional title. As the story moved forward, it increasingly became apparent to who the hedgehog was alluding to. The titular hedgehog was Madame Michel, whose major characteristics were aptly captured by Paloma in her reflection: “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.” It was, without a doubt, that Renée loomed large in the novel. However, vestiges of her trickled into the people who managed to see through her veneer – Ozu, Paloma among them.

The novel, however, does not reduce itself into an examination of the interiors of Renée and Paloma. The Elegance of the Hedgehog explored, on varying levels, subjects such as family dynamics, class consciousness, social and political structures, suicide, and philosophy. The philosophical elements, at times, do come out heavy-handed, but it was still one of the novel’s finer elements. While there are several local elements to the novel, the story resonated on a global scale. The story of Renée and Paloma reminds us never to overlook or underestimate the people we meet. There is a depth that we can never fully reach. Appreciating beauty, in all its manifestations, was a seminal element of the story. We are surrounded by beauty and if only we learn to appreciate even the beauty of the ordinary then we will be gain a deeper understanding of life.

Ratings

81%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%

Prior to doing reading lists, I can’t recall having come across Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Even when I did encounter it, I simply bypassed it. Sure, the title was interesting, even a little unusual. How many literary works carry the word “hedgehog”? The title sounds more like a movie title than a literary one. Eventually, after several encounters with the book, I finally gave in and bought my own copy last year. I initially thought that the book was originally written in English and I was pleasantly surprised when I learned it was originally published in French. Curious as to what the book holds, I added it to my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Thankfully, I managed to read the book before the year ends. More than that, I am grateful that I was able to convince myself to buy the book. The book was brimming with profound wisdom and, despite my initial apprehension, I was slowly reeled into the world of number 7, Rue de Grenelle. The philosophical parts do, at times, come across as heavy-handed but it still made up for an interesting and absorbing reading experience.

Book Specs

Author: Muriel Barbery
Translator (from French): Alison Anderson
Publisher: Gallic
Publishing Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 320
Genre: Philosophical

Synopsis

Renée is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building on the Left Bank. To the residents she is honest, reliable and uncultivated – an ideal concierge. But Renée has a secret. Beneath this conventional façade she is passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her self-important employers.

Down in her lodge, Renée is resigned to living a lie; meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid a predictably bourgeois future, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.

But the death of one of their privileged neighbours will bring dramatic change to number 7, Rue de Grenelle, altering the course of both their lives forever.

About the Author

Muriel Barbery was born on May 28, 1969, in Casablanca, Morocco. She and her parents moved when she was two months old. Barbery studied at Lycée Lakanal, a public secondary school in Sceaux, Hauts-de-Seine, France. In 1990, she enrolled at École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud and took up philosophy. After obtaining her agrégation in philosophy in 1993, she started teaching philosophy at the Université de Bourgogne, in a lycée, and at the Saint-Lô IUFM, a teacher training college.

In 2000, Barbery published her first literary work, Une gourmandise, which was translated in English in 2009 with the title Gourmet Rhapsody. The novel was a critical success, winning the 2001 Prix Bacchus-BSN. However, it was Barbery’s second novel, L’élégance du hérisson (2006) that she gained more acclaim. Published in English in 2008 as The Elegance of the Hedgehog,  topped the French bestseller lists for 30 consecutive weeks. Selling over one million copies by May 2008, it was a bestseller in many countries such as South Korea, Italy, and Germany. The novel was adapted into a film in 2009 carrying the title Le Hérisson (The Hedgehog). Her other works include La vie des elfes (2015, The Life of Elves), and Un étrange pays (2019). Her most recent novel is Une rose seule which was originally published in French in 2020 and was translated into English as A Single Rose 2021.

Barbery has lived in Kyōto, Amsterdam, and Paris. She is now currently residing in the French countryside.