Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Frenchy Frenchy French

I know this is annoying and pretentious, but here's me having read a best-seller and my major takeaway is, Golly, what does it Say about Us as a Society that The Elegance of the Hedgehog was so popular?

I disliked the two main characters. One is a concierge in a hoity-toity building; plain and from a humble background, she has taught herself a lot about culture, philosophy, literature, music, but feels compelled to hide it under a stereotypical "stupid old woman" surface for the comfort of her wealthy employers. The other is a young teenager, also highly intelligent, who hides her brilliance in order to be left alone by her vapid, elitist family and peers. They're both really bitter about leading lives of deception, and scornful of the people they're deceiving. This all seems pretty pointless to me. At least the concierge is pursuing her interests though. The teenager is planning to commit suicide and burn down her flat in a big Gesture, and is keeping notebooks of profound thoughts to leave behind her in the meantime. So, massively selfish as well.

The back of my edition has a quote from the Guardian: "Resistance is futile... You might as well buy it before someone recommends it for your book group. Its charm will make you say yes." Ignoring that half-hearted last sentence, that's a pretty hilariously lackluster endorsement, and sums up my expectation going in and my reaction after the fact. I guess book club members identify with bitter geniuses who feel compelled to hide their brilliance; and not only do they identify with them, they find them "charming". Well, they are French.

Believe it or not, I didn't actually hate this book. It's not bad, it's just... meh. It is extremely French in its obsession with the "oughts" of social position and particularly with the idea that great culture only belongs to one kind of person. Lordy, the French. I did find it blazingly predictable that Japanese culture is held out as pure, beautiful, and generally perfect. Sadly, this stereotype is not in any way subverted. Save us, Japan!

It's dangerous to write a book in which your characters are supposed to be super-intelligent and having profound thoughts about culture on every page, but actually this one pulls it off. There were several points where I did, truly, feel enriched by the observations of these characters. For example, here is the teenager on grammar:
Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty... when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language... I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility.
And the concierge on "Dido's Lament" by Purcell:
In my opinion, the most beautiful music for the human voice on earth. It is beyond beautiful, it is sublime, because of the incredibly dense succession of sounds, as if each were linked to the next by an invisible force and, while each one remains distinct, they all melt into one another, at the edge of the human voice, verging on an animal cry. But there is a beauty in these sounds that no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds.
I liked this book if for no other reason than that it reminded me to go listen to this piece again; and if people have discovered various works of art or music because of this book then it deserves every copy it sold.

One more:
To those who have not understood that the enchantment of language comes from such nuances, I shall address the following prayer: beware of commas.
The ending I found shocking and predictable all at once, and while I never did come to like the characters, I think I came around to something like sympathy, so there's that. All in all, I think this is a book worth reading if the opportunity comes around. And if my (hypothetical) book club picked it, I wouldn't decide to be "out of town" for the relevant dates.


  1. Great review -- I was gifted this book when it came out but the moodiness of it was just not something that called to me (yet?) -- I'll come back to this when/if I do read it to dissect with you. (That quote abt grammar is rather lovely!)

    1. The grammar bit is from a chapter on the theme of grammar, and it was one of the better bits of the book for sure. Credit where credit is due: the French take language reeeeeeally seriously.

  2. Oooh, I was expecting you to be like 'THIS IS TERRIBLE' (just, from the beginning of your review, not because you just randomly hate things) but hey, it's ok huh? This is good, because I recently bought a copy of it and, well, I don't like wasting money.

    Also, this: "I did find it blazingly predictable that Japanese culture is held out as pure, beautiful, and generally perfect." makes me think I'm probably going to like this a lot. Because I sure do love Japan!

    1. Well, to be clear: I don't hate Japan at all! I just thought it was sort of predictable how the main characters both like Japanese culture and then they meet this Japanese guy and hey it turns out they can all agree that Japanese everything is great. I dunno. You probably would like this aspect of the book, because they namecheck a lot of films etc which might mean more to you than to me!

  3. Byyyerrrrrrghl, this book was awful on so many levels. I had so, so many annoyed feelings about it. They are here: if your feelings feel like visiting my feelings.

    Also, lulz at that Guardian blurb.

    1. I'm so glad my feelings visited your feelings because I LOLed. Amazing post.

  4. I wanted to love this book and yet I could not, for all the reasons you say. My mother LOVES it, and usually she does not like pretentious things so I still don't know what happened there. I've chosen to chalk it up to not liking books in translation.

  5. I listened to this one on audiobook, and the readers were fine, but I hated the book, mainly for the detractions that you list in your review. I found the characters and the story insufferable. But at least you got something out of it.

    - Christy (from A Good Stopping Point - for whatever reason, it's not recognizing my Wordpress credentials).