On Palimpsests and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog

All writers have them - images that captivate beyond explanation. For me: palimpsests. That there could be a word for texts layered upon other texts, obscuring what had come before, has never stopped delighting me. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise to find this word thrumming in my head as I try to explain the generous beauty and humanity and complexity and intelligence of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.


Life at number 7, rue de Grenelle, "a fine hôtel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments" is full of just what you might imagine: wealthy tenants taken up with their own private dramas, pampered dogs and children, disregard for the concierge and the competing demands on her time. Thankfully, it is also full of much you might not expect, delivered through the alternating narratives of Renée, the widowed concierge, and twelve-year-old Paloma who lives on the fifth floor and is placidly planning her suicide.


These two narrative voices are distinct and detached. Though they live in the same building, each has but the vaguest awareness of the other, but from the start, their voices resonate, like the reverberation of a plucked string or a sounding gong still lingering in the air. Both are highly intelligent, deliberately misunderstood individuals, both seem to be in hiding, and both vibrate with a tamped-down hunger for something more than their life at present allows.


In addition to the stories of these two women (one young, one not-so), this book is a story of layered texts, of the ways ideas will accumulate and accrete, overlap and expand to fill every cranny. The book is a palimpsest, and the discovery of each layer, each place where the philosophy of one is linked to the heartbeat of another, provides a unique satisfaction beyond the plot, itself simple yet compelling. What happens in this book is that a resident on the fourth floor unexpectedly dies and, for the first time in decades, the apartment is sold to a newcomer. Upon the arrival of the newcomer, everything changes for both Renée and Paloma, and the distinct narratives of the two begin to merge.


What really happens in this book is that we are given a glimpse into the lives of two brilliant women, people who have made it their practice to pay unique attention to their surroundings and to the powerful workings of their own minds. These are women who read widely and with voracious curiosity, who find in art and in music pure and sublime heights, who relish art films and Japanese poetry, and who learn equally from dense philosophical texts and the homeless man on the corner. And they are isolated.


Renée describes herself, and I wonder how many readers gasped in recognition as I did:

Let us just say that the idea of struggling to make my way in a world of privileged, affluent people exhausted me before I even tried: I was the child of nothing, I had neither beauty nor charm, neither past nor ambition; I had not the slightest savoir-faire or sparkle. There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger.

Paloma, of course, is a child of great wealth, but she, too, feels alone in her thoughts, accused by her mother of hiding, even as I want to shout her words to the mountaintops, especially this from the section subtitled "A choir is a beautiful thing:"

Every time, it's a miracle. Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there's this life we're struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck -- it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.

I came to this book via the #TolstoyTogether reading of War and Peace, from a fellow reader who recalled the numerous connections between this novel and Tolstoy's classic. She also noted the resonance of our time of isolation and the way we -- like the residents of number 7, rue de Grenelle -- had been brought together through Tolstoy. Reading it now with such intimate familiarity with Tolstoy's work, I find every reference illuminated, the layering of texts bringing depth of understanding rather than obscurity. I am also aware, albeit vaguely, of all the references - to philosophy, to culture, the films of Ozu, the work of William of Ockham - that I am surely missing or, at best, grasping obliquely. Each text layers on the one before it, yet somehow, the result is not a muddled haze. So perhaps my palimpsest image is not the best one. Perhaps better is this:


As a child, I would spend hours in the set of encyclopedias on the family bookshelf. One of the sections I returned to again and again was an insert of illustrations on the human body. Each page of this set was thin and transparent, each printed with full-color depictions of a different body system - digestive, circulatory, skeletal - and if you turned the pages in reverse order you could see the body layer itself together, increasing in detail and complexity with every page. As a child, my interest was mostly in the physical spaces each system took up in the body, how each fit into the empty shell I started with. If I were to look at those pages today, I would see that system differently, with an increased (though still imperfect) understanding of the ways each system communicates with and relies upon the other.


Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog is like those clear pages. At present, my understanding is meager, but I can glimpse the whole truth; I can stand apart from it in admiration. I can also see it as a work of art, in awe of the ways its creator was able to fit all those complex components into such a deceptively simple model. The layers are all here, and whether I comprehend them or not, they serve to illuminate rather than obscure. A palimpsest it may not be, but I am fascinated all the same.


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