The Elegance of Muriel Barbery

Morning, Victoria Harbour, BC, November 2012

Starting in September, I have been writing at this one coffee shop near our house (incidentally, today the shoppe was closed for it’s Christmas party…).  It’s far enough away that I needed to get up, get dressed, and think about what I am going to bring with me-I can’t just sprint over, coatless. Routine is vital. When you are unemployed, unattached and floating, you need to create a routine, a regime, a raison d’être. Without these things life can get away from you and move on without you or your consent. It is imperative that you begin each day by getting up and making the bed. Exercise is vital. You must bathe. You must stretch. You must get dressed each day and put makeup on (or at the very least pants without an elastic waistband). These things sound a bit stupidly basic, but after a few weeks of looking they became small mountains, reminders that needed daily tending to to remind myself that not only was I human, but that life is important. That even a fabricated sense of purpose is importent: fake it till you make it.

These past few months katiclops occasionally became my motivation for getting up in the morning. It was a project that I could take with me, that I could build for myself, that was always moving (ever slowly) forward. I hope I do not lose sight of it in the coming months.

Estuary in Mist, Ben Fox, 2012*

*NB: This painting was donated to the awesome Raincoast Conservation Foundation for auction. You can bid on it here.

The coffee shop near our house is very similar to our apartment. It has two skylights, faces south instead of east, with a wall of windows on the street side. It is the same width, and like ours, is quite deep, with the washroom at the back.One wall is white and the other is brick (ours are both white-brick) and the floor is the same distressed, yet maintained (albeit barely) hardwood, the kind of floor  that is so warped it makes your table wobble. It is light and bright, two storeys high, with simple black benches, wooden chairs and metal stools. Art rotates through regularly. Right now it is Ben Fox, who paints large landscapes (1.25x1m) in a sort of Lawrence Harris, emotive style; cutting rock, water and mountain from arching curves and geometry. He finds a symmetry and balance in the shapes. Cutting them out using contrasting colours he puls from muted olive greens and greys. Suddenly: red, pale pink shapes the mountains, a forest frosted by pale blue. It is safe. I like it here. The barristas work, and I work. Other writers work. I had my table. I always arrived between nine and eleven. On the rare occasion when I arrived early or late I got a smile, occasionally an eyebrow shrug. Recently they hired a glut of new barristas. They aren’t as friendly as the old ones. They don’t joke with me, they don’t  seem to notice me, or they do, but courteously pretend they don’t notice I come in, every day, in the same way, alone (anonymity is one of my favourite and most-missed city-living quirks).

*                         *                          *

I picked this book up in October…or was it early november? After getting back from a biking trip up island. There is something so cathartic about long bike trips. Like long hiking trips. Ultimately the only thing you need to do each day is ride. You have a beginning and a destination. There is silence. There is the weather. There is the sky. I yelled at cows. I sang to myself. I thought. The power at my friend’s tiny log cabin in Cedar went out the second night I was there, and we spent three hours chatting around the gloaming fire while we waited for it to flicker back to life. Darkness is the best catalyst for conversation. My friend is taking a year off from university, and has amassed a personal reading list of just over 200 books. He had mentioned he was still looking for a good copy of Ulysses. The next day, (with dry feet, thanks to a fortuitous lobby-find of free Wellingtons), I stopped in at my favourite little consignment shop to browse their curated book collection and pick up a beautiful old copy. However, the first book I laid eyes on was Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, which had been recommended to me by the same friend who had first gotten me on to David Foster Wallace: I had to try this one too.

I really, really struggled “getting into” this book. I think a huge part of it was that it’s so rooted in the monotony of the everyday, which perhaps at the time, hit a bit too close too home. Once my fabricated routine became finite, I tore through the rest of it in a few days. Elegance is two intersecting stories about two residents of a Hotel particulier in Paris. The story revolves around two voices: one of Paloma, a thirteen year old bourgeosie, who is planning to commit suicide and is very, very bored with life. The other is Mme. Renée Michel, the keeper of the building and a fifty-year-old-something widower. Much like Super Sad True Love Story each alternating chapter (and voice) is further represented by a different typeface (Times New for Mme. Renée and Arial for little Paloma). Although Cloud Atlas does not employ this technique, it is still interesting to have read several books in quick succession playing with character voicing, highlighting the stregths and weaknesses of each author in turn. It’s a bit odd to think of the dominance (or perhaps only my affinity) for first person narratives in contemporary literature, and the use of the third person historically . What would Anna Karenina have read like written by Anna? Is this symptomatic on our masturbatory fascination with the experiential world? Or moreover the narcissistic need of narrative?

I learned after beginning Elegance, that the book was originally written in French. It has also been made into a(n apparently) popular French film (also available on US Netflix!) It is always a little funny reading a translation. It is like hearing a story repeated from a friend…You know you are hearing 98% of what is going on, but there all these quirky little anomalies, the beautiful ambiguities of language, where often, the character and talent of the author most prominently comes out. For example, this clunky passage:

The use of the imperative and the “I beg you” does not have the good fortune to find favor with me, particularly as he believes I am incapable of such syntactical subtleties, and merely uses them out of inclination, without having the least courtesy to suppose that I might feel insulted.

In French, this wouldn’t have felt clumsy and square. French is peppered with large old-fashioned ways of expressing oneself, and like any language the translations feel klutzy and slightly gauche as a result. As a whole, Elegance embodies so much of what I have come to regard as being very “French” in it’s meandering, slightly navel-gazing analysis of the everyday; the micro-analysis and cross-examination of the quotidienne. For example, from Paloma:

…If you want to understand my family, all you have to do is look at the cats. Our two cats are fat windbags who eat designer kibble and have no interesting interaction with human beings. They drag themselves from one sofa to the next and leave their fur everywhere, and no one seems to have grasped that they have no affection for any of us. The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but [does not apply to them]…[our family is] utterly spineless and anesthetized, emptied of all emotion.

Another aspect that struck me as a particular bit of discrete commentary, was that this story took place almost entirely at home. In France I remember being told that an Englishman would invite you for supper the first time you met him, but then never again, but the Frenchman will take weeks to invite you, but then he won’t stop! While I was in France, everyone loved their third places: cafés, bars, restaurants. Like a bar in Spain, most of these places are interchangeable, they are the third place. It is not at all uncommon to drink coffee and to have breakfast in the same café you have tapas after work, and beer while you watch the soccer match in the evening. In Canada there is alot of awkwardness around third spaces, maybe because of the Prohibition, or religion, or maybe still again our affinity for living in the country. Here, we like to keep all these places very clearly separate, and far apart if possible: food, dancing, bars – all deemed very, very different things from coffee shops. We are so dependent on third spaces, a place outside of home and work. But for the characters in this novel, home is their work, and also their third space. There is no commentary on this, but as someone  who was eking out purpose in a third space, I really struggled with this monosetting of the book.

Despite my reservations, I must give the book the same kind of credit: it was a bit of a farce on today’s youth: artificial depth, empty quests in education, foreign cultures and old texts, harsh judgements and critiques arising from apathy and excess, when the elegance lies in the haggard old workhorses. That in assuming all romantic stories exist in youth we overlook the beauty and richness that arises in old age. That youth perhaps become so haunting because we have the longest time to be haunted by it. Elegance is effective as a novel because of it’s tongue-in-cheek ability to not take itself too seriously. That all of it’s philosophizing and name dropping, it’s snippets of poetic genius (“for those who have no apetite, the first pangs of hunger are a source of both suffering and illumination”), it’s ultimately just a trite little story. At one point Barberry even states it out explicitly:

I have always been fascinated by the abnegation with which we human beings are capable of devoting a great deal of energy to the quest for nothing and to the rehashing of useless and absurd ideas. I spoke with a young doctoral candidate in Greek patristics and wondered how so much youth could be squandered in the service of nothingness. When you consider that a primate’s major preoccupations are sex, terrtory and hierarchy, spending one’s time reflecting on the meaning of prayer for Augustine of Hippo seems a relatively futile exercise…a shameless use of resources.

For the most part, Elegance is an uncomfortable book, in the same way that Michael Franzen’s Freedom is uncomfortable for Americans. It isn’t easy. It teases out our insecurities, holds up a mirror and picks at our sore points, our frailties and invented purposes with comfort ourselves with. I have spoken to  alot of people who haven’t enjoyed this book, have found it challenging or difficult.

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.

This book is filled with exactly what it critiques, ultimately leaving a hedgehog. It is a trite story, it is all it is. That is why it is happy. That’s why it begs this type of tongue-in-cheek analysis…why the “humour of Kafka” was not lost on Barbery.

For what is culture but a further expression of taste?

A plucky little roman: well worth a quick read.


Lille France nord pas de calais 2009Lille, France, January 2009, photo credit: David Foisy