THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG
by Muriel Barbery
translated by Alison Anderson
(May 2009, £7.99, 320 pages)
by Muriel Barbery
translated by Alison Anderson
(May 2010, £6.99, 136 pages)
I read The Gourmet (published in the U.S. as Gourmet Rhapsody ) when I was in bed with tonsillitis. This is not extraneous atmosphere-building information designed to humanise the reviewer – if you suffer from recurrent tonsillitis, you will know this immediately, because nothing is more likely to make someone stop reading literary webzines, rush off to take vitamin C, and aerate the bedroom than being reminded of those vile days when swallowing brings tears to the eyes and the whole world is distorted through a fog of misery (extraneous humanising information – I am rubbish at being ill). In this state, a book about delicate French food might seem an odd choice. But it was short, it had a jolly cover, and the journey to the bookshop stocked with trashy fiction was beyond contemplation. So I set to it, having originally judged the cover favourably by the least justifiable criteria – trendily embossed Art Nouveau typeface and fulsome reviews from sophisticated-sounding French magazine editors.
The thing about tonsillitis (I promise I won’t mention it again) is that it doesn’t encourage you to engage much with the written word, unless it’s the instructions on painkiller packets. However, reading The Gourmet I was gripped with the sort of joyous abandonment I thought had peaked when reading ‘Anne of Green Gables’ at the bottom of the garden in childhood summers, ignoring my family and eating forbidden biscuits. Principally, the main character in The Gourmet is wonderfully unsympathetic. He is arrogant, self-obsessed, cruel and blind – nevertheless, we wait breathlessly for his next pronouncement, the next wrinkle that emerges in his character. It’s tough to pull off a bastard as your hero, especially if he is old and fat rather than young and sexy – but Barbery does it with a confidence and sensitivity that I like to think is particularly Gallic. The fact that this is her first novel is enough to make one give up on the writing lark altogether, but that’s another story.
The bastard Gourmet is Pierre Arthens, dying in his apartment on Rue de Grenelle in Paris at the end of a stellar career as a food critic and all-round offence to humanity. He cheats on his wife, aggressively alienates his children and is a horrendous, inexcusable snob, all the while maintaining his superior veneer of taste and cultivation. All this emerges only in fragments, as he, his family, and friends tell his story. He is dying, and he knows it – but more urgently, he knows that there is a dish that he must taste once more before he leaves this world, and which eludes him. This is the story of his quest to remember, in the process exploring some of the finest meals and most telling memories in a life of extravagant epicureanism, be it a tomato from an aunt’s kitchen garden or the most elevated restaurant meal France has to offer. It is impossible not to be charmed, moved, and full of resolutions to eat better.
After The Gourmet, there is The Elegance of the Hedgehog. We are back on Rue de Grenelle and Pierre Arthens is still dying. Thank goodness, mutters the building’s concierge. Renée is small and plump, always dressed in black, with bunions on her feet, pots of coarse casserole on her stove and a cat in her armchair. But what no one in the building realises is that she is probably better educated than all of its self-important residents, and that their concierge has carefully cultivated her stereotypical image. She excoriates phenomenology while watering the plants, and shuts her inner door at night to secretly watch magical Japanese films.
There are souls in the building, however, who find a way behind her façade: twelve-year-old Paloma, possessed of unusual intelligence and a carefully drawn-out plan to kill herself; blue-blooded Portuguese cleaner Manuela, whose kindness knows no bounds; and the mysterious new Japanese resident, Monsieur Ozu, who buys the Arthens’ apartment. Slowly, through chance and attraction and the power of ideas, Renée’s life changes. Wit, friendship, sadness, loss and beauty in this world become hers – and, by extension, ours. Suffice to say, it is an extraordinary book, both luminously intelligent and completely gripping.
If I go on much longer about Barbery’s novels, the good people at this will cut me off. But please – beg, borrow or steal these books, and consume them, preferably at the bottom of your garden and in excellent health. You deserve it – we all do, once in a while.