Friday, June 19, 2009

Two elegant hedgehogs

As a former French teacher who lives with an elegant little terrier named Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, how could I not like Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog?

A runaway best-seller in Europe--over a million copies sold in its native France since its 2006 publication, translation rights sold to 31 countries--the book is #14 on the most recent New York Times paperback trade fiction best seller list.

Last September when the U.S. edition was published, Caryn James characterized it as belonging "to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer." I love being flattered, I am pining for France, I'm a sucker for best sellers, and there's the hedgehog thing. I put a hold on it at the public library.

In James's New York Times review, she offers this interesting insight into the book's title:
The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. Yet there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all. (What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”

Well, actually, Ms. James, the hedgehog idea wasn't Berlin's. The ancient Greek poet Archilocus said it succinctly 27 centuries ago: πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἐχῖνος δ'ἓν μέγα; and Erasmus of Rotterdam ran with the idea some 21 centuries later: Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. You can read all about it here, if you happen to be a fox.

But enough intellectual veneer. Now that I've read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I'll suggest another important literary reference buried within it--an allusion to Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. Consider Potter's story: Depressed little girl meets "a very stout short person" with bad hair. The prickly person works for many people of higher status than herself, including the sad child. A garment gets lost in the washing. Eventually the old woman serves the girl a cup of tea, and the two look "sideways at one another." An improbable friendship forms.

And then there's the whole thing about laundry and dry cleaning, about which I will say no more to avoid spoiling Barbery's plot.

OK, I've been playing with you. What I just did is exactly what Renée, the concierge/ hedgehog/ protagonist of Barbery's book, despises. "If you want to make a career" in academia, she muses,
take a marginal, exotic text ... that is relatively unexplored, abuse its literal meaning by ascribing to it an intention that the author himself had not been aware of (because, as we all know, the unknown in conceptual matters is far more powerful than any conscious design), distort that meaning to the point where it resembles an original thesis, ... devote a year of your life to this unworthy little game ... , and send a courier to your research director.

That kind of reflection permeates this strangely absorbing little book, which--after a great deal of philosophy and French spleen--ends up affirming art, music, friendship, beauty, goodness, and the wonder of daily life.

I'll say no more. For a really fine introduction to and review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog--far better than I could provide--read Michael Dirda in the Washington Post.

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