18 May 2011

The return of the philosophical rodent

About two and a half years ago, Dan Conrad wrote on Facebook, that The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the best book he'd read in 2008. He didn't write to tell us why, but I picked up his comment here and quoted a review from The Washington Post.

I don't recall that Dan ever explained his preference, but did mention the book by Muriel Barbery a time or two in conversations since.

So, I was heading off for a visit to a granddaughter. That meant 10-11 hours on the road. As usual when facing a road trip, I visited the Northfield library. When I saw the CD version of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I checked it out. I listened to half of it on the way to Jim, Ange, and Jaime's. I listened to some of the rest on the way home.

I know why Dan liked this book. The author is a professor of philosophy. The book is full of philosophy. Ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and metaphysics. There's very little plot. In fact, one English marketer noted that the book wouldn't do well in the UK because people there want plot more than anything else.

I'm a plot fan too. So I had trouble with the book. I don't think I could have read it. For me the philosophical processes of analyzing alternatives and meaning are tedious. I do understand why and how such cogitation can be appealing. It's just not appealing to me. While driving down the road, I could let the philosophical verbiage go in one ear and out the other. When I listened to the last two CDs at home, I kept falling asleep.

BUT, did you notice that I finished listening to the whole book? When I awoke and found that I'd slept through a track, I went back and listened to what I'd missed. Why? None of the tedious philosophizing was imperious or pompous. None of it was trivial. In fact, it was all tied to the "reality" Barbery created in the book. There were far too many big issues raised for me to keep track of. I think I could have spent a month with this book if I was of a mind to think through all the ideas she raised. But, I'm a plot fan.

AND, the three main characters are just amazing. There's a middle-aged Parisian concierge in an upscale condo building. She acts like the dumb country bumpkin the residents expect her to be. But in her back room she's reading Kant and Tolstoy, listening to Purcell and Mahler, and studying 17th century Dutch still life paintings. In her spare time, she's seen all the arty films of Yasujiro Ozu.

There's a friendless 11-year-old resident of the building, who is equally bright and forced to keep that quality under cover to satisfy her bourgeoise family. (She gets to narrate a third of the book through her journals.)

And then there's the new guy in the building. He's a rich Japanese businessman who, while being a successful importer, is also a secret intellectual, whose tastes in art and philosophy match those of his new concierge.

And then there's the ending. Eleven year old Paloma says, "I learned 'never.' It's awful!"

Have you read The Elegance of the Hedgehog? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it. Or, if you read it, don't forget to tell us about your experience.

Your choices are the book, the recording, the Kindle version, or the French film on DVD.

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