Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book 30 – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

My 30th book! I don’t think I’ve ever read 30 books in a year before. My last record was 27 books in 2008.

One of the best films I saw this year was Le Hérisson. A little suspicious at first of the cutesy premise - unlikely friendship develops between precocious adolescent girl, middle-aged female concierge and retired Japanese businessman! – but the positive reviews convinced me to give it a try. With the sole exception of the generic music score, I loved the film. It's not often you see female curmudgeons onscreen, and a well-drawn one at that. When I discovered that Le Hérisson was based on a novel by Muriel Barbery, I did something rather unusual – I immediately ordered it online!

Unfortunately, I had a preconceived bias that I’d enjoy the book as much as the film adaptation, if not more. Although the novel allowed a deeper understanding of the two anti-heroines and a better platform for philosophical ruminations than what cinematic voiceovers could afford, there were some pretty serious flaws which prevented me from truly enjoying the book as a whole.

The titular character, Renée Michel, is the prickly 54-year-old concierge of a luxury apartment building in Paris. The uppity occupants of 7 rue de Grenelle hardly suspect their custodial drudge is leading a clandestine life (no, Madame Michel does not supplement her meager income by being a Lady of the Night). Off-duty, she is an autodidact who hides in her tiny library reading Tolstoy or watching videos of obscure art house films. Little does she know, Madame Michel has more in common with 12-year-old Paloma Josse, the youngest daughter of an upper class family living on the fifth floor, than she realizes. Gifted with high IQs and keen observation (with a soft spot for Japanese culture), both are painfully aware these qualities make them distinct (if not isolated) from society. Burdened by their brilliance and conceit, they have each made their own decision to opt out of life, albeit in different ways. Paloma silently vows to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, while Renee is content to hide her intellectual pursuits behind the façade of a lowly concierge:

Let us just say that the idea of struggling to make my way in a world of privileged, affluent people exhausted me before I even tried: I was the child of nothing, I had not the slightest savoir-faire or sparkle. There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger [for books].

Sounds annoyingly French, n’est-ce pas? Indeed, Renée says things like: “Phenomenology is beyond my reach and that I cannot bear” and “how distressing to stumble on a dominant social habitus, just when one was convinced of one’s own uniqueness in the matter!” As for Paloma, when she’s tired of listening to her older sister and her boyfriend riffing like banlieu homies, she puts in foam earplugs and immerses herself in classical Japanese haikus so that she won’t be able hear their “degenerate conversation”. Cue the eye-roll, s’il vous plait!

As one reviewer puts it, Barbery’s characters are a little too good to be true: “either utterly beguiling or completely infuriating, according to taste.” Indeed, though I found Renée and Paloma to be both, leaning more perhaps toward the latter! Another critic
hits it right on the nail by explaining how the author:

underpins her writing with an infectious, if occasionally unsubtle, didactic ardour. All three protagonists offer specific antidotes to the ills of modern life: Renée contradicts class prejudice and intellectual pretension… Paloma presents the alternative to a generation of rioting banlieue-dwellers and cosseted little rich kids. And Kakuro embodies a sort of rose-tinted eastern answer to western wretchedness. He, more than anything else, demonstrates how Barbery's charm and cleverness allow for certain cultural and narrative simplifications that might otherwise prove to be insufferable.

From a North American perspective, it’s quite an eye-opener to see how European society operates in such a class-conscious paradigm still, especially in France, and especially so in Paris. Barbery’s rather bold criticisms against the French upper class has mixed success. Although the original book was a huge hit in its native country when it first came out in 2006 (more than 1.2 million copies sold), it’s evident that French readers did not find Barbery’s barbs too offensive. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that, as one reviewer put it, the “Amélie-esque, Parisian setting and cast of eccentrics” probably appealed to many; and “the enormous numbers who bought into the pseudo-philosophical twittering of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist” probably bought into this as well.

Perhaps this is so, but I think a big part of Hedgehog’s appeal is that the book flatters the reader. You feel so superior when Barbery makes jabs at the stupidity of the intellectual elite via Paloma and Renée. You feel so smug and satisfied when Paloma’s self-absorbed family falls for her normal girl act, or when Paloma’s sister Colombe talks to Renée as if she’s a half-wit. Then when Renée comes across Colombe’s graduate thesis, she totally tears into its contents (albeit silently to herself):

… For the quest for meaning and beauty is hardly a sign that man has an elevated nature… no, it is a primed weapon in the service of a trivial and material goal. And when the weapon becomes its own subject, this is the simple consequence of the specific neuronal wiring that distinguishes us from other animals; by allowing us to survive, the efficiency of intelligence also offers us the possibility of complexity without foundation, thought without usefulness, and beauty without purpose…

Fair enough. But then Renée asks herself what she would do if she were in Columbe Josse’s shoes, leading a privileged existence as a young student at the École Normale. She answers:

I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity… The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite…

Right. [MAJOR SPOILER coming up...]

Later, Renée confesses to Kakuro: “You are the son of a diplomat, I am the daughter of impoverished peasants. It is inconceivable for me even to be having dinner here this evening.”

So although Renée is an intellectual force to be reckoned with, is it so inconceivable for her to consort with someone above her station? In a way, the book claims to possess the very things it criticizes others for lacking; it claims to have integrity and profundity, but its criticisms only run skin deep, and never transcends any real boundaries. Here we have an intellectually formidable character who is paralyzed by insecurities and social conditioning, making Renée Michel even more helpless than any Jane Austen heroine from two centuries before. To top it off, she dies at the end of the story just after she has found some measure of happiness, her death symbolic of the fact that you can’t fight the system if you don’t have the right background. One reviewer remarks how:

Barbery's entire tale is soaked in sentimentality. What is most irritating is that it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge itself as such - hiding under a mask of philosophical fuss.

Matters aren't helped much by the English translation “which too often mimics the structure of French sentences, and slips into translatorese”. Indeed, at times I found the translation to be quite clunky, inelegant, and painfully unfunny when it’s actually trying to be humourous. When Renée is invited to Kakuro’s swanky apartment for the first time, she has a rather surprising encounter with a Japanese toilet while alone in the bathroom:

Did I press the wrong button, misjudging the amount produced—such presumptuousness, such pride, Renée, two lotus flowers for such a ridiculous contribution—and consequently I am being punished by the earsplitting thunder of divine justice? Am I guilty of overindulging—of luxuriating—in the voluptuousness of the act in a place that inspires voluptuousness, when we should actually think of it as impure? … Have my lumpen manual laborer’s fingers, succumbing to the effect of some unconscious wrath, abused the subtle mechanism of the lotus button, thereby unleashing a cataclysm in the plumbing that threatens the entire fourth floor with seismic collapse?

Mon dieu. I have a feeling the original French sounds a little better (but it might not be entirely the fault of the translator either). In any case, the result has the opposite effect of being amusing – it comes across as overly contrived, wordy and unfortunately, very French. I’m sorry, but the French are not as capable of comedy and wit in the way that the British are, and this passage sadly illustrates this fact.

And yet despite all these glaring flaws, I still enjoyed the book - if you can believe it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE reading about over-privileged rich folk making asses of themselves. When the author isn’t too busy admonishing the affluent and aggrandizing the marginalized, there are some moments of good satire and human observation. And some of the French ruminations on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death can be more thoughtful than pseudo. Though it yields to some sentimentality, the genuine appreciation of friendship and love quietly overcomes the awkwardness in its execution (and translation).

I must say, however, that Mona Achache’s Le Hérisson is the superior work, and would recommend the movie adaptation over the original novel, as the screenplay does away with all that pontificating and conceit and simply distills the best parts of Barbery’s book!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Book 29 – The Night Watch

By Sarah Waters

Been hearing nothin' but praise for Sarah Waters, so was delighted to find used copies of her two most recent while perusing English bookshops in Amsterdam earlier this fall. It was not my intention to read two novels in succession about WWII London featuring conscientious objectors and ambulance drivers (see previous post about Christopher Priest’s The Separation). How often does that happen?

Comparatively speaking, The Night Watch has a somewhat more conventional structure than The Separation. Don’t know if some reviewers are on drugs or what, but one had likened it to a topsy-turvy time scheme or jigsaw puzzle, the equivalent of walking into a movie and watching the second half first. This is so not the case. The narrative moves in a linear fashion, though backwards in time.

In 1947, we are introduced to four main characters who seem somewhat stuck in limbo as they adjust to postwar life, yet they are all linked by their past experiences in wartime London. There's mysterious, solitary Kay - a courageous ambulance driver during the war - now trying to search for some purpose; sweet naïve Helen, who suspects her girlfriend Julia of being unfaithful; pretty and charismatic Vivian, stuck in a doomed relationship with a married ex-soldier; and Vivian’s brother Duncan, formerly in prison for some mysterious reason and now wrestling with demons from the past. The bulk of the novel is comprised of 1944, and then finally the shortest section, 1941. Thus we first see what kind of jaded, disappointed people these characters have become after the war, what happened to them during the war, and the sense of hope or foreboding they had before the war.

I would agree with this Guardian review that not much happens in the first chunk of the book: coworkers take a tea break and have “desultory, guarded conversations"; a lesbian couple go for a picnic and run into a friend; two chaps meet for a beer. Generally "ordinary life beautifully described - the ‘chill, bitter, marvellous’ taste of beer in a porcelain cup.”

The middle section, 1944, gets a little more interesting. As the story goes back in time, Waters gradually reveals secrets or establishes the connection one character has with another. However, I did not like the deliberate withholding of Duncan’s back-story for being in prison. This was set up as this big dark secret that does not get revealed until the very end of the novel, and it was disappointingly anti-climactic. I felt that knowing Duncan’s secret earlier in the novel would have helped relate to his character better, since that traumatic event really shaped how he behaved in the present. The whole time, I was wondering why he was so meek and insecure and these character traits can be rather tiring when you don’t know what drives this behaviour. I was glad to hear that another reviewer felt the same way:

“By comparison, Duncan's story doesn't quite work. He is beautifully done, and both his imprisonment and its consequences are utterly convincing. But the cause of the imprisonment, when we get to it, is so bizarre that the reader needs what the form won't allow - a considerable amount of back story. Some plainer offence would have done quite well.”

The one thing that shines in The Night Watch is the portrayal of rather ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, TNW was praised by critics for its attention to detail and meticulous research as for Waters’ earlier Victorian era novels, but TNW goes further in its thoughtful character study combined with a believable evocation of period and place. As the Guardian review observes:

Her ability to bring the times to life is stunning, whether through smell - the "talcum powder, permanent waves, typewriter ink, cigarette smoke, BO" of the typing pool, the "unwashed feet, sour mops, bad food, bad breath" of prison - or through her minute enumerations of her characters' physical lives. There is much face-washing, teeth-cleaning and kettle-boiling carefully described, alongside the illicit sex and bodily peril; Waters brings such a clear-eyed honesty and fresh interest to the everyday that she could probably make drying paint a lively read.

I mostly agree -- up to a point. I’m just not sure if I actually liked TNW as a whole. Like The Separation, both novels were compelling and well-written, but also disappointing for different reasons. The Separation was like a brilliant exercise whose purpose seemed to confound the average reader, while The Night Watch was basically a thoughtful yet ultimately ho-hum soap opera with WWII London as backdrop. The characters in TNW were very ordinary indeed, and all too real, but not exactly likable or identifiable. What is the point of evoking the past in such rich detail if you can't really relate to the characters?

Sometimes it takes an eloquent and like-minded reviewer to make you realize why you didn’t quite like an otherwise generally well-praised book:

I don’t recall another account of wartime London that so faithfully captures the atmosphere of not only the extraordinary, but also – and especially – the quotidian.

… Yet it is the sheer banality of the characters and their lives that to me is both the main strength and the main weakness of this book... how much do we really care about ordinary, self-absorbed people? On the other hand, don’t we, the majority of us who just pass our days on jobs and errands and our small universe of friends and relationships deserve to have our stories told? And yet, how much interest can there ultimately be in insular stories that have no more to say than “I was happy, then I was sad,” or the reverse?

Before The Night Watch, Waters was known for her brilliant novels about young Victorian women reinventing their identities (lovingly known as her Victorian lesbian romps), which were full of melodrama and satisfying plot twists. With TNW, Waters took a different turn with a more downbeat and dispassionate approach with a focus on somber character study. I have a feeling I may enjoy her pre-TNW novels much more! But I still have her next book, The Little Stranger, on my on-deck shelf … so we'll have to see!