Friday, May 13, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF MURIEL BARBERY'S THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG

What I find most touching about this book is the way it takes me back to a more naïve and thoughtful time, the late 1950s and early 1960s when people I knew would talk late into the night about matters like politics or philosophy.

For all the clichés about North American society being unimaginative and consumer-oriented at that time, it was actually an interesting time with rapid and important changes occurring. Women by the millions commuted daily to work in downtown offices, gathered with their friends for lunches in busy restaurants, and laid the economic foundations of feminism.

Cities streamed with high-school graduates who were the first in their families to attend university, often at less-than-glamorous postwar expansion facilities for fees that seem insignificant now. Paperback and cheap hardbound editions of classics and great books flooded the post-war market, again at prices which seem tiny today. It was a time, too, when films from abroad, seen in old revue cinemas, exposed young minds to wonderfully exotic perspectives and ideas and stimulated discussion.

Finding many such interesting and thoughtful people today in North America, even on university campuses, I think not likely. North American society has become only more immersed in consumerism, and there is hardly a flicker of idealism to be seen anywhere. Contemporary universities have become career factories. Even foreign films do not offer the same stimulating notions that they did. The cinemas themselves are largely gone, and many of the contemporary films have changed their tone.

The French are noted for café society and people who still like to discus philosophy and politics energetically and at length, although I fear it is a national quality that is declining along with the very numbers of cafes which serve as the necessary locations, a trend driven by the changes and demands of a more modern and, dare I say, North Americanized society.

But in this sweet little book, the two chief characters still retain these qualities. We have Renee – perhaps the French equivalent to the old philosophical New York cab driver – who reads serious authors and thinks serious thoughts although residents of the high-toned building in which she is employed would never guess from her deliberately-assumed protective manner as cranky old concierge. As someone who becomes her friend, we have a very bright girl, Paloma, who lives, in a rather rocky and uncomfortable relationship, with her successful and pretentious family in the building.

And we even have references to the great days of film with the magical Mr. Ozu, a deliberate reference to the great Japanese director who died in the 1960s.

This is not a complex or lengthy story, so I will not offer any of its details, but if the nature of the characters I have described appeals to you, you will enjoy the book.

I usually have a tough time with endings in fiction. They are far too often the weakest part of even some of the best books, and to some degree that holds for Ms Barbery’s book. I’m not sure that, in the end, the author knew what to do with her characters, so she has something unexpected and shocking occur. Of course, life can be like that, but fiction is not life.

It may take you a few hours to forgive Ms Barbery, but when you do, you will be left with a lovely lingering sense of having visited a nostalgic and interesting place.

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