***Group Read: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
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I have never started/facilitated a group read before, but I suggested this based on the number of people on Stasia's thread who mentioned planning to read this. I requested it from the library, so expect to start it soon.
Andrea? what about you?
so glad you started this group, I've been meaning to read this one now for some time.
I did just realize it is broken up into sections, perhaps making for easier discussion...
Raced right through 'Hedgehog' as well; looking forward to the discussion. As long as we don't venture too far into Husserl...
I think a discussion of the first section could go forward now--but my first section, in the paperback version, appears to go to page 129 and the end of "Profound Thought no. 8"; the next section is "On Grammar."
What struck me at once was the similarity between these two narrators, Renee (sorry, French accent aigu not working...) and Paloma. From very disparate backgrounds, yet both feel the need to conceal their thoughts and feelings and, above all, their intellectual passions. With Renee/Mme Michel, it's because of her social status. I did keep wondering how much of what Paloma was struggling with was because her age made it difficult to assert her own opinion and to cope, as Mme Michel did, with being isolated and not fitting in? Thoughts???
PS: Book has been spoken for....
I'm finding the characters' personalities fascinating. I like Paloma a bit better than I like Renee.
> 28 re: Paloma's age and coping. I did notice that Renee has a friend while Paloma doesn't seem to have any friends. I'm looking forward to seeing how that pans out.
I think that she is afraid of both scorn/ridicule and, on a pragmatic level, her future. Who wants a servant (which is essentially what she is) who is more knowledgeable than they are; who might be judging them and finding them wanting? This really speaks to the continued existence of a class system, at least from an intellectual & monetary standpoint. Renee isn't affluent and isn't formally educated, ergo, this is who she must be: the kind of person who enjoys soap operas, tacky magazines, etc. etc. So she adopts that as a kind of protective camouflage.
Profiler, I actually found myself preferring Renee to Paloma, at least at first. She has forged a life for herself, knows/understands the tradeoffs, etc. I get the feeling sometimes that Paloma is having one of those pre-teen/teen crises where nobody arounds you understands you and she is luxuriating in the sense of being misunderstood and alone, rather than seeking out a world or a life for herself where she might be understood. It's the suicide threat that bothers me the most -- the grandstanding. That doesn't mean it bothers me as a narrative device -- it works to explain her character -- but it's an element of why I find her less appealing a character than Renee.
I grew up around adults who would never talk down to a child and always felt comfortable around them. I can remember a discussion I had with a judge on the difference between the probability and the possibility of life on other planets - at the age of 8! (Not that I was one iota as bright as Paloma.)
I think one moral of this story is that you should never judge a book by its cover. Working in a high school library, I have come to know a lot of teens that prefer to hide their light than suffer ridicule from their peers. As I read this book I thought that I might be a little like Mr. Ozu, seeing a side of them that their classmates wouldn't take the time to know and engaging them in discussions about their lives and books. Not being a teacher, I can be a little more personal with them and can interact with individuals since I don't have to work with whole classes.
This book will go back on my shelf as one that I will enjoy again.
Something that struck me also is that both Mme Michel and Mr Ozu are both real outsiders in France; Paloma is only an outsider in her own eyes. (Moving further along in the book, there is Mme Michel's reaction when she realizes that Paloma isn't quite what she had assumed...) And both of them are middle aged. Have they both had enough time to adjust to that outsider status and make peace with it? Whereas Paloma is just coming to realize what is in store for her. It's like realizing that grownups don't have answers; that there are no answers for many questions.
Interesting comments from your own experience, Mamzel. I know that since I don't have children, I now see teenagers, for instance, as a vast mass, and would have a hard time identifying personal characteristics in any one individual. Like you, I was a precocious kid, and much of the time adults around me would acknowledge that and not talk down to me. Probably the first time I felt out of place was when we moved from London back to Canada when I was 12, and when I met a teacher at 14/15 who didn't appreciate that precocity/curiosity.
Or you can all go ahead and I'll avoid reading the thread until I catch up ;-)
"This book is certainly very well written, often funny and enjoyable to read. But its merits are more questionable. Forget about the small flaws that follow from Barbery's previous occupation, as a professor of philosophy. But does the author truly believe that the vast majority of the book's readers, in France and abroad, are able to criticize, in the Kantian sense of the word, her opinion (or that of the 'hedgehog') on Edmund Husserl and his theory of phenomenology? Isn't it rather a device to win the reader's support, by giving him the sense that he is an intellectual able to make this kind of intellectual judgment?
Muriel Barbery's world is really quite Manichean, made up of an elite group of the poor and of foreigners lost in France on the one hand, and on the other hand wealthy and white individuals who are, necessarily, stupid and evil. Only two individuals rise above this classificiation: Paloma, a small rich child who is saved from the fate of her class because she has the intellect to perceive the trap into which she has fallen; her salvation will be her disappearance through suicide; and Mr. Ozu, who, being Japanese, is necessarily refined and civilized. ...
(The reviewer goes off on a long riff about the reality of modern Japan, from pachinko parlors to Korean 'comfort women' during WW2)
The mocking rejection of this "Franctitude" by Ms. Barbery reminds one of criticisms made nearly a century ago by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, in a 1935 work that Simone de Beavoir saw as containing "a certain hateful contempt for ordinary people that is a pre-fascist attitude." It's obvious that in this book, the phrase "little people" has been replaced by "rich bourgeois" as a focus for this same kind of contempt. "
(the reviewer draws an analogy between the poodles and the humans -- i.e. the families in the apartment building are like the poodles in terms of intellect, etc., in Barbery's view, acc. to the reviewer.
> 40 I don't know philosophy so I used Renee's remarks to learn about Renee, rather than ponder her views on Husserl. I found the character development the most interesting aspect of the book. Even though I didn't always like the characters, I was always fascinated by them.
BTW, I actually have a poodle, an Apricot Standard Poodle.
In particular the point about Japanese culture - both Renee and Paloma see Japanese culture as in some way liberating, despite the fact that, in fact, it has its own rules. What is suffocating to them is not specifically French, but is the idea of having roles to which they are supposed to conform due to their social position. Being foreign inherently frees you from that, and that's why Ozu is in the position that he's in.
I did, in all honesty, find Renee's grasp of philosophy rather unbelievable. The reason for this is that I'm not particularly convinced that one can learn philosophy from books - one can learn what philosophers think but that's a rather different thing. I agree that we use that to learn about Renee, and not about Husserl. There's a part of me which feels resistance to the idea of the 'autodidact', because I work in higher education and would like to think that we're not entirely useless. But maybe that's just me feeling defensive!
I also found Renee annoying in that I think she did write off everyone in the block, just as they wrote her off. She was still stuck within the notion of 'class' roles, but felt she was somehow an exception.
By the end, I understood why, and that's why the end was so powerful for me. Paloma was the same, but the whole point of being an adolescent is feeling misunderstood, so I could empathise a lot more.
(Hopefully this hasn't already come up and I missed it.) Renee strikes me as representative of a modern "everyman" -- gender notwithstanding -- in the sense that she really exhibits what most of us feel but won't admit -- that conviction that we are smarter than others believe us to be, that we are unique among the multitudes, that we are misunderstood and that misunderstanding allows us to perpetuate a kind of contentment within our limited role. This mode of thinking begins in adolescence (which Paloma represents) but part of the modern condition, I think, is that we never really outgrow it. I can see how Renee's characterization would be annoying for some, though.
While I'm not sure how I feel about her yet, I am curious to see if that characterization stays the same as the novel unfolds. Some of you may know already. I'll be back! :)
I see higher education as kind of like talk therapy. It helps you to define the questions and understand how to frame or think about responses. But if the raw material isn't there, it won't matter. Similarly, I think it's possible for an autodidact to thrive -- and thrive outside of academia, which has its own limitations. Look at the world of economics today, where those whose independent work predicted many of the economic events that occurred were shut out as non-conformists by what one economist (son of John Kenneth Galbraith) calls "a kind of Politburo for correct economic thinking", even as the conformists squabbled between themselves, Keynsians on one side and adherents of Milton Friedman on the other. Sorry, a bit of a digression...
The point re Renee and her reverse intellectual snobbery is well taken. She sneers in just the same way that she is sneered at, only covertly.
#45, It's true that we never see ourselves reliably through our own eyes -- the first person singular by definition signals an unreliable narrator, and perhaps it's significant that both Renee and Paloma speak in the first person? Neither of them have a sense of perspective on their own dilemmas and situations, Renee because of her isolation and Paloma because of her youth.
I have to say that one of my best friends is an autodidact--she had some college but didn't graduate; on the other hand, she has a deep self-taught knowledge about American history, plants/botany, and baseball, and she works as a lexicographer. On the other hand, I had the benefit of higher education and I do think that more people are like me and learn best in a structured, directed environment, and very few are like my friend or Renee.
So far I'm a bit impatient with Paloma, even though I think I was a lot like her as a kid. But I'm about the same age now as Renee and maybe it's just identification with her, but I find I'm much more understanding of her. Both of them amuse me, though.
>45 beserene: Interesting point about most people feeling the same "secret superiority" that Renee does. The irony, of course, is that even people who are not at all blessed intellectually, as far as one can judge from outside observation, feel the same way!
42 & 43 Our poodle is not smart. It's funny you said that about blondes. I started calling our poodle a "dumb blonde" and my daughter said "no, she's a dumb Apricot", so that's what we call her!! She is not crabby, though, she is very sweet and wouldn't hurt a fly.
I find it interesting that the other tenants in the building are so eager to socialize with Ozu, if he is an outsider. Does anyone have any insight on why the social snobs of the building wouldn't apply their standards to Ozu?
P.S. I am gaining so much more understanding of this book from all the interesting and insightful comments on this thread. What a benefit you all are!
#49 I think being a foreigner often exempts you from social snobbery - foreigners can't be located within a class system of any sort. I also think they want to socialise with him because they are curious about him. It remains to be seen what would happen once their curiosity is sated.
#50, I also tend not to discuss some of the stuff I'm thinking about. When I find someone I can talk "seriously" with, it's a joy. A lot of 'friends' have told me I'm just too intense about esoteric or unusual stuff. I really don't care who's on American Idol or what's happening on Lost, but I'm reading a weight tome about Enlightenment thought and heading off to a flamenco performance instead. I'm just doing what I find interesting; they are the ones to draw conclusions about it. So, often, much of what I find intriguing or interesting never comes up in conversation. Which I suspect is why I empathize with Renee. Her situation is an extreme one, as is her response to it, but we all stereotype each other constantly, and have a kind of 'template' for behavior and attitudes that we find comfortable.
I'd almost like to recommend it to my book club but don't think I have quite enough faith in them to do so. Sad, really.
ETA: auxiliary verbs.
My frustration was with the character of Ozu, this fascinating and apparently perfect outsider. He has a dramatic impact on Renee and Paloma, hedgehog and embryonic/trainee hedgehog, and yet we see no change in him. Sure, he is drawn to these two people, but it's not as if we see him resisting human relationships in the way they did. He's unique and distinctive, but not very three-dimensional. He's an "exotique", and at times I felt he was more of a device than a real person. He is there to shake everyone and everything up.
Good point about Ozu seeming like a device. I can certainly see that. He wasn't very deeply drawn, come to think of it.
Did anyone think that the hedghoginess was softening a bit in Renee? Would that have continued, or would it have bumped into decades of conditioning and caused conflict between her and Ozu?
And did you find the explanation for this -- her sister's experience -- convincing? To me, that was the weakest part of the novel. I can see how it would be traumatic, but not necessarily lead to this reaction. Her sister's experience was in an utterly different realm of human existence, and I struggle to see the link. Barbery is a good enough writer that ultimately it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, but....