• Sunday, May 07th, 2023

Dear Ladies,

Here is the list of books we will be reading in The Book Club in the coming months. Please be sure to order your books well in advance to avoid any surprises.

29th September 2023
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri / Longues distances (French edition).

27th October 2023
Bloom by Kevin Panetta / La saveur du printemps de Kevin Panetta (French edition).

24th November 2023
The Solitude Of Guilt by Sebastian Mathew.

15th December 2023
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma Naguib Mahfouz / Le voyage d’Ibn Fattouma (French edition).

I wish you good reading.

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• Friday, April 28th, 2023

Muriel Barbery is a French novelist and philosophy teacher. She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1969 and moved with her parents to France when she was two months old. Barbery attended the lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, France, followed in 1990 by the Ecole normale supérieure in Fonteney-Saint-Cloud, in Lyon, France, where she received her agrégation in philosophy in 1993. She has been a philosophy teacher at the Université de Bourgogne, taught in a lycée and at the Saint-Lô teacher training college.

Muriel Barbery has written a few books. Her second novel, The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, was published in French in 2006 and English in 2008 and was translated into several languages. Soon after its publication, it became a bestseller over a long period. It received the Booksellers’ Prize in 2006, the Georges Brassens Prize and many other prizes, and was made into a film. After quitting her job, Barbery and her husband lived in Japan from 2008 to 2009.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog has two narrators in the first person and alternating chapters. The first is a fifty-four-year-old caretaker, Renée Michel, who describes herself as a poor short, podgy and ugly widow, and the second narrator, the rich twelve-year-old school girl, Paloma Josse. Paloma lives with her parents and sister in the luxurious Parisian building at seven Rue de Grenelle that Renée has been looking after for twenty-seven years. Paloma keeps two diaries, “Profound Thoughts” and “Journal of the Movement of the World”, in which she writes about her daily comments on occurrences around her and her deep philosophical analysis of her life, its meaning and absurdness.

Renée and Paloma will become friends towards the end of the story because they mirror each other despite their age and class differences. In common, they have loneliness, intelligence, autodidactism, caustic humour, and being discreet about themselves to not be singled out and left alone. Furthermore, they are aware and lucid of the affected, shallow life of people surrounding them. They also both have an affinity with Japanese culture. Moreover, only the alluring, considerate, middle-aged wealthy Japanese new tenant gentleman, Ozu, can see through them, gaining their trust and becoming a mutual friend.

Renée wants the residents of the building to believe that she is an ordinary concierge and therefore acts like one. She conceals from everybody that she is knowledgeable and self-taught in philosophy, literature, art, classical music, Japanese films and paintings. She secretly reads Tolstoy, Proust, Kant, Husserl and Tolstoi, and is fond of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. She discreetly listens to music by Purcell or Mahler and likes watching Japanese films by the director Yasujiro Ozu. She spends her time in introspection and self-reflection.

Paloma shares with Renée the concealment of her intelligence and knowledge to people around her. She is a precocious, bright child, a good, sharp, analytical and mordant writer, not lacking humour in her descriptions. She is sickened by the superficiality of her bourgeois family and the despicable emptiness of the bourgeoisie’s existence around her as well as the decadence of society in general.

She decides to end her torments by committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday, June sixteenth, by taking sleeping tablets while staying for the night with her grandmother. However, before leaving and when her parents and sister are out, she intends to set fire to her parent’s luxurious apartment and call the fire brigade to save the tenants in the building from harm.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog is a touching, masterfully and elegantly written book with rich, meticulously chosen French vocabulary seldom used today, which enhances the quality of the writing and enriches the story to give it substance to savour with delectation. The chapters are short, the eccentric characters are well depicted, and both protagonists’ reflections are cleverly amusing in tone. The Elegance Of The hedgehog describes the social classes and the contrasting life between “Upstairs and Downstairs” in an opulent building in one of the wealthiest Paris neighborhoods.

The book has a myriad of citations about classical authors, famous painters, films and film directors. Philosophy is palpable in the book, which alludes to the author’s studies and qualifications.

The novel’s title is explained by the perceptive Paloma when she tells Ozu that appearances can be deceptive, “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptivley indolent little creature, fiercely solitary and terribly elegant”.