The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This is a book about two people who hide their true intellectual talents – one because a concierge is not expected to be smart and the other because she prefers not to stand out as an overly intelligent twelve-year-old. It is a book about the beauty and meaning of life, about paying attention to the people around us, and about redemption. And how it is always right on time.

It’s slow at first, and it’s dense in some places, but the writing is beautiful and the characters are memorable. Here’s my favorite passage. It reminded me of why I enjoy the process of thinking of things to write about, even if I am just putting them here:

Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing–or trying not to slide down–the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable–even mere phantasms–as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this touches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.

There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required simply to support our primitive requirements, we wonder, bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.

Eternity eludes us.

At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this: hold your rank, or die.

At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.

My book club is discussing this one in the fall. It certainly gave me quite a bit to think about. I don’t give it my highest recommendation, but I did enjoy it. All the reviews I read called it bittersweet, and it was. In the best kind of way.

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  1. By Prodigy Chiro Care on 3/1/2017 at

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    The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery – Through a Glass, Darkly

  2. By Michael Jordan on 9/1/2017 at

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    The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery – Through a Glass, Darkly

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