"Philosophy is the disease for which it should be the cure, but isn't," said someone - possibly H. Feigl. To me, this engaging book is above all an exploration of what it means to be a philosopher. The author briskly dismisses common misconceptions: to start with, you don't need to be an academic, and indeed this may well be harmful. Really, being a philosopher is about having a certain kind of attitude to the world.
The two main characters, who alternately narrate the story, are both philosophers. One is a reclusive, middle-aged concierge, and the other a precocious 12 year old girl. They are both desperately lonely people who live almost entirely in their heads. Renée, the concierge, reads Tolstoy and Husserl, but takes great pains to make sure no one knows she's doing it. Paloma, the little girl, hides from her hated family and writes two notebooks: her Deep Thoughts, and her Movements of Life.
Both narrators claim to feel immeasurably superior to everyone around them, which has duly annoyed a good half of the reviewers on this site. I think the author is giving you plenty of clues that this feeling of superiority is to a large extent illusory. Renée is a Proust fan, and writes in a delightfully convoluted faux-Proust style which must have given the translator a few headaches. But, even before we get to hear her witty comparison of M. Arthens with Proust's Legrandin, we've come across Paloma's ditzy, neurotic mother and her constant insufferable references to les Guermantes
. Paloma makes fun of her elder sister Colombe's absurd name ("at least I'm not named after a bird"), but oddly enough doesn't seem to be aware that Paloma
means the same thing in Spanish as Colombe
does in French. Her criticisms of the family's lack of sanity clearly need to be taken with a pinch of salt, given that she's planning to celebrate her thirteenth birthday by killing herself and burning down the apartment.
So why do Renée and Paloma feel superior? In general, why do people who have a philosophical attitude feel they are better than those around them? Barbery, herself a philosopher, offers various explanations. Philosophers read more than most. They have a proper understanding of grammar, something that's even more important in French than in English: the hysterically funny sequence where Renée vows to kill her neighbour over a superfluous comma is one of the high points of the book. But, above all, they care about things that other people find uninteresting, or don't even notice.
I was at several points reminded of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time
, a book which has many points of contact with L'élégance du hérisson
. Nick, the narrator, is rather like Renée; he's a colourless, self-effacing person whose main pleasure is to observe the people around him and slowly piece together the pattern of the Dance. Throughout the series, he's contrasted with the appalling Widmerpool, who busily, and with considerable success, pursues conventional worldly goals.
At one point, Nick memorably wonders why he thinks he's better than Widmerpool. His rival makes more money, has had a better career, and enjoys a higher standing in society. Nick comes to the conclusion that he really only has one advantage: sometimes he can laugh, when Widmerpool doesn't see that anything is funny. I hope Paloma reads Powell when she's a little older. I think she'll like him.