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L'eleganza del riccio by Muriel Barbery
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L'eleganza del riccio (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Muriel Barbery

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7,536485457 (3.81)2 / 797
Zeruhur's review
L'eleganza del riccio è un libro apparentemente semplice che cela diversi livelli di lettura. Il primo, superficiale, ha portato alcuni a disprezzarlo e altri a fraintenderlo. Eppure non c'è snobismo o pedanteria, non c'è intenzione di sminuire il lettore e di ridurlo a spettatore ignaro e passivo.
Certamente lo studio della filosofia aiuta a comprendere alcni passaggi in maniera più completa, giacché la Barbery ha la tendenza di esporre le proprie istanze filosofiche per bocca delle sue protagoniste che a volte sembrano la personificazione dell'autrice più che il loro personaggio.
Il succo però è che la Barbery vuole sottolineare come la cultura sia alla portata di tutti, se si ha la volontà di perseguirla, e non solo appannaggio di accademici paludati. Non è quindi snobismo, tutt'altro. Anzi dietro alle persone più insospettabili può celarsi una persona colta.
Forte quindi è il tema della maschera assunta dalle due protagoniste. Una si cela sotto l'apparenza dello stereotipo più classico della portinaia, sciatta e ignorante, dedita alla televisione e non troppo sveglia. All'altra, una dodicenne assai precoce, il gioco riesce più difficile in quanto celare la propria intelligenza, ridurla a standard normali è impossibile.
Questo porta Paloma alla constatazione della mediocrità della propria famiglia e combattuta tra la sua maturità mentale e il classico disagio adolescenziale, decide di farla finita portando con sé le certezze materiali dei mediocri genitori.
A svelare entrambe non a casa sarà un ricco e colto giapponese. La maschera infatti è un tema dominante della società nipponica.
Saranno quest'ultimo e Reneè la portinaia a introdurre Paloma a un mondo diverso.
La narrazione è divisa tra le voci delle due donne, l'una in prima persona, l'altra sotto forma di diario. Il risultato è un romanzo ricco di significati e di delicate sensazioni che si legge d'un fiato. ( )
  Zeruhur | May 26, 2012 |
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Non saprei. Ci sono pagine che sembrano copiate da altri recenti libri inneggianti alla filosofia (Platone è meglio del Prozac, Manuale dell'Ateismo...). Poi ci sono capitoli surreali, dove la portinaia e/o la dodicenne hanno pensieri che rasentano il grottesco - per il peso specifico delle parole, che sembrano prese interamente da enciclopedie dell'Arte o da breviari del pensiero laico. Poi in altre sezioni ci sono informazioni interessanti sul go, e sui film di Ozu. E sulle porte scorrevoli. Ogni tanto, qualche frase saggia - di una saggezza che non sembra tuttavia appartenere all'autrice. Un libro denso di riferimenti 'intellettual-chic', che diventa ben presto borioso. Più che una 'raffinata commedia francese', un fantasy per intellettuali frustrati. ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |
Renée Michel is a concierge for an upscale apartment building that is inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée is an intelligent autodidact that hides herself from the residents of this elegant apartment, trying to confirm every stereotype they might have towards a concierge. However a precocious girl named Paloma suspects there is something more about Renée. When a wealthy Japanese business man moves into the building, he sees right through the concierge’s façade and tries to befriend her for some intellectual conversations.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a highly successful novel by Muriel Barbery who obtained her agrégation in philosophy before becoming a professor for the Université de Bourgogne. The publication I read was a Europia edition that was translated by novelist and Literary translator Alison Anderson. L’Élégance du hérisson was translated into more than forty languages and has also been adapted into the 2009 movie The Hedgehog (Le hérisson) staring Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic and Togo Igawa.

This novel is full of allusions towards works of literature, music, films, and paintings, which is one of the reasons I loved this book. While it might come across as pretentious and somewhat cynical The Elegance of the Hedgehog plays a lot with the ideas of stereotypes, class-consciousness and acceptance. A philosophical novel that explores ideas of how we present ourselves to the world and if we should pretend to be someone different, if that is what others expect from you.

There are plenty of philosophical ideas running through this novel that presents different ideologies, Muriel Barbery has stated that literature is an effective way to explore philosophy. Having sat through plenty of long and boring philosophy classes she wanted a way to explore the ideas in a more effective and interesting way. I suspect people can get lost in the pretentious nature of this book but also the ending; however I think it was a fitting ending for the novel.

I found The Elegance of the Hedgehog to be a beautiful, if not recherché little novel and I enjoyed every moment of it. I wanted to turn back to page one and start again; I think there is plenty within this book to offer its readers. If you pay close attention to the book you might also notice that most of the book was told in a first person, present day nature that makes for a fresh look at the story that I didn’t notice till near the end. I know I should have paid more attention but this is one of the main reasons I wanted to re-read the book.

Lovers of philosophy and literature would love this book but also anyone interested in Marxism. I know I didn’t talk much about the class struggle within the book but that is because I have much to learn in this area. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an intelligent novel, full of references to literature, witty and smart humour with a satirical nature. The way this French novel translates into an elegant English novel is a testimony to Alison Anderson’s ability but she had a great piece of literature to work with. I would highly recommend this novel to everyone but maybe that isn’t a good idea, I think you have to be in the right frame of mind or mood to truly enjoy this book.

This review originally appeared on my blog: http://literary-exploration.com/2014/12/02/the-elegance-of-the-hedgehog-by-murie... ( )
1 vote knowledge_lost | Dec 3, 2014 |
The characters are awfully pretentious, but I think it fit them and in the end, I loved the book. Though it got a bit too much at times, but I just skipped some paragraphs until the author/character got her head screwed back on correctly.
  inkyphalangies | Nov 28, 2014 |
The pacing of the book worked well, and I found the author's portrayal of cats charming.

However, for a supposed social critique, this book conformed too much and was frequently constructed on shoddy premises. A few things that annoyed me:

1. I could not buy into why it was so important that Mme Michel emulate “how a concierge must act” to the extent of cooking food she doesn't like.

2. If we are actually meant to believe that approximately 60% of the cast of characters have no real thoughts in their heads, the author might have done better to describe their actions more and focus less on what the viewpoint characters thought about them. Paloma especially does not feel like a trustworthy narrator.

3. No one in this book is as “deep” as they think they are. I spent half the story assuming this was deliberate, but if it is, something gets lost in translation (I read the English translation).

4. The ending is not just a cheap shortcut; it undermines a considerable amount of what was supposedly the author’s point.
( )
  eaterofwords | Nov 16, 2014 |
I found this book unspeakably pretentious and nasty. ( )
  lucypick | Sep 23, 2014 |
Lesson learned...the beauty of now.
The first few "chapters" irritated the hound out of me...too philosophical. But then Mr. Ozu was introduced. What a BEAUTIFUL character!
Of course, Renee and Paloma were both beautiful characters too...and Manuela. But I LOVE Mr. Ozu.
The beauty of now.
  Mariesreads | Jul 10, 2014 |
I loved this book and was quite surprised to read so many negative comments about it. I found the story sweet and captivating and the characters very engaging. What I loved most were the writer's use of language and the way she seemed to really understand the mind of the young girl. ( )
  rosiezbanks | Jul 1, 2014 |
I am sidelining this book for now. I cannot go any further. Beings it's on my 2013 challenge as "read"(don't know how to remove status), I will get back to this. I just can't finish it at this time. I have too many other books to read and I know one of those books has more to offer than this. If I had to rate this book now I would give it 1 star. Perhaps I am too anxious to move on to one of my new books but even so, shouldn't a great book hold one's attention until the end? ( )
  MaryEvelynLS | Jun 1, 2014 |
I enjoyed this lovely, meditative novel. It's not a good choice for anyone who enjoys a can't-put-it-down plot, but if you enjoy the beauty of language, art, and philosophy, and you like quirky characters, then I highly recommend it. ( )
  NTPawelski | May 29, 2014 |
3 stars because I enjoyed reading the novel in French, although 1 or 2 stars would better reflect my estimation of its literary worth. Sort of a latter-day Bridges of Madison County(much better written, however, than that one-of-the-worst-yet-most-popular-novels-of-all-time). What irritated me most about the two main characters (the alternating "voices") in the novel, Renée (54 year old concierge of an upscale Parisian apartment building)and Paloma (12 year old "genius" daughter of left-liberal bourgeois parents who live in the building), was their snobbish contempt for almost all of the people around them, characterized en masse as "les riches." R & P claim to be hiding out, hiding their little light under a bushel, so to speak, because they are misunderstood and constrained by social expectations. Almost everyone else is superficial and pretentious, from their point of view. However, R & P struck me as just as mired in prejudice as those they despise. Their "special" sensitivity and intelligence make their "profound thoughts" (Paloma) and aesthetics somehow superior to everyone else's. Oh woe to anything more contemporary than 19th century Russian novels or 18th century French language (Barbery dishes all things "postmodern" with an exception made for a few movies such as Blade Runner, which perhaps she would be surprised to learn is considered the quintessential postmodern film). Japanese culture and style as understood by Barbery(exemplified by the idealized Kakuro Ozu) are incongruously fetishized by both protagonists. 2/3 of the way through, the novel shifts gears and switches from whining, intellectual pretension (discourses on Beauty, Art and Meaning) and faux philosophy to a pretty straight forward Cinderella story. I must say I enjoyed the "dime store novel" plot better than the treatises that preceded it. Killing Renée off at the end, just after she's come out of her shell and transmogrified from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan under the gaze of Kakuro and Paloma, who see her as she "really" is, is a plot device worthy of any number of cheap romance flicks and novels. Of course, it brought tears to my eyes (oh why couldn't there have been a happy ending? why couldn't she and Kakuro have lived together happily ever after?) which in and of itself, put me on my guard and made me suspicious. Here we go again! My tear-jerk meter was going crazy which means that my emotions were being manipulated. And I HATE to be manipulated. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
I love when a book has such love and hate towards it! I must admit, this was definitely not a typical read for me. Despite how "odd" the book was, I continued on. The last 100 pages or so was better than the beginning. However, one of my favorite "profound thoughts" was early on about two dogs and their owners ;-) ( )
  patsaintsfan | May 23, 2014 |
This was really three books in one. The first was a dull and dry exploration of why the two main characters (an older concierge and a young girl in her building) are smarter than everyone else and why they need to hide that fact. This section of the book got lost staring at its own navel. Luckily, a new man moves into the building and brings with him a spark of life. He's smart and refined but feels no need to either hide it or flaunt it. He brings the two female characters out of their shells and the book turns into a beautiful love story. This was by far the best part of the book. The last part of the book is a sudden tragedy that happens in the last 5 or 10 pages. It really comes out of nowhere and ends the love story cold. The young girl finds a new path that won't (hopefully) lead to her destruction, but the abruptness really caught me off guard and soured my taste for the book. ( )
  sbloom42 | May 21, 2014 |
2.5 stars

Renee is 54 years old, a widow and a concierge. She has one friend, Manuela. Paloma is 12 years old and lives in one of the apartments in Renee's building. Renee is much smarter than she wants people to know. Paloma is just really smart.

I wasn't a fan. Paloma is not the least bit likable, and though I initially thought that about Renee, as well, Renee grew on me some. There was a lot of boring philosophy in the book, which I'm not interested in in the least. Paloma was ridiculously snobby. The book got slightly better in the second half, but overall, philosophy is not my thing, the characters were mostly unlikable and “pretty” prose doesn't impress me (in fact, it usually bores me, and did again this time). ( )
  LibraryCin | May 16, 2014 |
Do not get bogged down or hung up on the philosophy or vocabulary in this book, (one reader suggests having a dictionary close at hand)because beneath all of that is a heatwarming, brilliant, witty, bittersweet story.

I will read this again!

"Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is 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 terrible elegant. "
— Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)
( )
  FAR2MANYBOOKS | Apr 5, 2014 |
Do not get bogged down or hung up on the philosophy or vocabulary in this book, (one reader suggests having a dictionary close at hand)because beneath all of that is a heatwarming, brilliant, witty, bittersweet story.

I will read this again!

"Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is 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 terrible elegant. "
— Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)
( )
  FAR2MANYBOOKS | Apr 5, 2014 |
I absolutely loved this book. The trio of unique characters -- all wise, authentic and sharing a passion for literature, philosophy and art -- blended unexpectedly together. The writing is beautiful as was the story. ( )
  AmyKite | Apr 2, 2014 |
Elegance is a matter of taste, of preference, rather than an absolute.

Renee and Paloma are fish out of water. Renee is the building concierge in a fashionable apartment building in Paris and, to the shallow observer, Renee is anything but fashionable. She is from a modest, working-class family and unappealing to those who would look only on the surface. Paloma is the precocious, youngest daughter of a wealthy family in the building. She refuses any attempt at inclusion in the privileged world of her family. What courses beneath the surface for both of these women is a rich, complex internal life. Though she never finished a formal education, Renee has schooled herself in literature and philosophy and art. And Paloma, though merely eccentric appearing, has calculated the meaninglessness of life and is planning a grand suicide on the date of her thirteenth birthday party.

There is an elegance to Barbery’s novel, though it is diluted by a careless narrative, a lack of good editing, and a saccharine ending. Renee and Paloma are exquisite characters with a depth and complexity that is rare in literature. The irony of their lives would be a joke if they were any less authentic. But Barbey was enchanted by her own characters to the point of distraction and the narrative suffers for it. There could be nothing better for these two characters than for them to meet. But they don’t even admit to noticing each other until over halfway through the novel, and then only after a mutual acquaintance forces the issue.

So what happens in the first half of the book? That’s where a good editor could have been helpful. Up until the point that Renee and Paloma become aware of each other, they indulge their internal lives. Though the intrigue in their characters is a result of listening to their thoughts, Barbery allowed the exercise to go on a little too long. Renee’s biting insights on her employers are charming and witty at first, but then tiring. And Paloma’s philosophical musings on life are exposed as too smart for even the most precocious twelve year olds as they drag on. Barbery could have accomplished the same complexity without allowing the narrative to get lost.

Finally, the ending here is too neat, too shocking by miles. I won’t spoil it for anyone who reads the book, but the vehicle Barbery uses to bring a change in the lives of her characters is abrupt and ultimately trite.

If it sounds like I didn’t like [The Elegance of the Hegdehog], that’s not quite right. I enjoyed a great deal of the book, especially the two principal characters. But I think the overall experience was clouded by what I saw as wasted potential. I began to write my own narrative for Renee and Paloma, imagining what I thought their meeting and lives would be like together. So, I’d recommend the book but with a caution that you might have some disappointment along the way.

Bottom Line: Complex and intriguing characters in a narrative that gets a little lost and a novel that needs a little more editing.

4 bones!!!!! ( )
1 vote blackdogbooks | Mar 30, 2014 |
This was an enjoyable read! Originally in French, but recently translated into English, it's about a concierge and a 12-year-old girl who live in the same building. They're both intellectual, but they try to hide it from everyone (how very French). The book is all about their relationships with other people who live in that building, and their relationship with each other. I really didn't like the ending (also very French...), but the rest of the book was cute and quite funny! ( )
  goet0095 | Mar 27, 2014 |
This is one of those books that you're not sure you like or understand it while you're reading it but when you look at it as a whole after you're finished you realize it is a great work of literature. So my advice to the reader is to read it all the way through before coming to any conclusions. ( )
  rxtheresa | Mar 26, 2014 |
rabck from glade1, an oppem book, for TLC bookclub; Wow - it wasn't at all what I expected, especially the ending. Renee is the concierge in a posh apartment building. She puts on an identity for the building residents of a dowdy widow, and that's the opposite of who she is. When Kokuro moves in, he and the teen Paloma figure out who Renee really is. Very dense writing, this needs to be read at a slow pace to absorb all that the story is trying to convey. My favorite phrase"...searching for those moments of always within never". This book is rabck'd to dukefan86 on behalf of dvg in the tag game. ( )
  nancynova | Mar 24, 2014 |
Wow, that's an annoying book. You can expect a pre-teen, especially a smart one, to have these DEEP THOUGHTS...but the book presents them as actual insights. Sheesh. Madame Michel is even more annoying - she's intelligent, but incredibly stupid, with her hiding away. And if you're going to have a character go into paroxysms of rage over a misplaced comma, you MAY not thereafter mess up the language - "seven am in the morning", sheesh. OK, by the end of the book I _finally_ got a clue about the hiding - before that, I'd decided the entire reason for it was so that Paloma and Kakuro would have something to do. But the insights, such as they are, at the end of the book - are too close to the end, too rushed. I slogged through nine tenths of the book with nothing but idiocy. The last tenth is actually good, in relaying insights and understanding, but the well is already poisoned. And then the cheap shot ending, that solves all problems. UGH. I'm sorry I read this, and it's a painful example of why I don't read "literature". ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Mar 19, 2014 |
3.5 stars
Finally done with it, will review it some other time. ( )
  pathogenik | Mar 2, 2014 |
Copy on the back cover says something like, 'Resistance is futile. You might as well go ahead and buy a copy before someone in your book club suggests it.'

Sure enough, someone in my book club suggested it, which has the strange effect of ramming home how much of a cliche I have become! No one likes to be predictable...

The story reminded me of lots of things, and of people... Sophie's World first and foremost, for its philosophy embedded in the fictional life of a woman/girl. Interestingly, Palome's birthday is June 16, which is one day after Sophie's of Sophie's World. (I only remember that because my own birthday is the same as Sophie's.)

Renee was an endearing character who reminded me of a man I worked with briefly in a postal sorting room. He had worked in the basement of a charity housing corporation all his life after a brief stint as a bus conductor and told me one day that he had many regrets, mainly because as a youth he'd showed a strength in mathematics. Yet his whole life was spent sorting mail on minimum wage, listening to Christian sermons every day after lunch.

Renee also reminded me of my time as a cleaner at the university where I studied concurrently. It's true that even middle class people look straight through people in such lowly positions, and treat the concierge/cleaner as being in possession of less than the full quid.

Also in the box of books was the film adaptation, which is really quite close to the plot of the book minus a lot of the philosophical musings. The film, like the book, feels very French. Palome was played disturbingly accurately by a young actress who reminded me that I'm not a fan of the precocious child as a device in films. I don't mind them quite so much in novels though, for some reason.

I'll be interested to see what other members of bookclub thought of this novel. Overall it felt self-consciously literary to me, but I'll acknowledge that this is probably due partly to my own shortcomings as reader. I feel I should have enjoyed this more, partly because I'm a bit of a Japanophile myself, like the main characters, and love films, and have recently been fascinated by phenomenology. So I'm not sure why I don't feel a bit more positive about this book. ( )
  LynleyS | Feb 8, 2014 |
OK, so Renée, the concierge, is a 54-year-old woman and so am I, but that's not why I loved this book so much (although it made it more personal for me). I loved this book because of its emphasis on finding the beauty in the small moments, on thinking deeply about what life means, and on appreciating life. It's one of my favorite books and I recommend it to everyone. ( )
  StormySleep | Feb 6, 2014 |
OK, so Renée, the concierge, is a 54-year-old woman and so am I, but that's not why I loved this book so much (although it made it more personal for me). I loved this book because of its emphasis on finding the beauty in the small moments, on thinking deeply about what life means, and on appreciating life. It's one of my favorite books and I recommend it to everyone. ( )
  StormySleep | Feb 6, 2014 |
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