Muriel Barbery and the Suspension of Disbelief

Muriel Barbery has written two novels:  Une Gourmandise (Gourmet Rhapsody) in 2000 and L’Elegance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) in 2006. Both are available in this country in Europa editions. These editions tell us that “Muriel Barbery was born in 1969 in Casablanca. She studied philosophy in France at the École Normale Supérieure and worked for many years as a philosophy teacher…Barbery now lives in Japan and is working on a third novel. “Hedgehog” has been published in 30 countries and “Gourmet” has been translated into 12 languages. The front pages of “Hedgehog” list four distinguished prizes which the book won in 2007.”

Barbery’s listing in Wikipedia doesn’t tell us much more except that “her novel, L’Elegance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) topped the French best seller lists for 30 consecutive weeks and, reprinted 50 times, had by May 2008, sold more than a million copies.”

Following the trail to Barbery’s blog, we discover an abundance of remarkable photographs, most taken by her husband Stéphane to whom she dedicates both novels. Some of the photos feature Japan. Many are captioned, some, but not all, with Barbery’s own words. A beautiful photo of trees is captioned with a quote from one Kim Dong-Hwa:  “Quelle merveille. La présence d’un seul papillon a suffi pour métamorphoser l’arbre.” (What a marvel. The presence of a single butterfly is enough to transfigure the tree.)

I expected philosophy. I got Art. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog on page 203 one reads:

What is the purpose of Art? To give us the brief, dazzling illusion of the camellia, carving from time an emotional aperture that cannot be reduced to animal logic. How is art born? It is begotten in the mind’s ability to sculpt the sensorial domain. What does art do for us? It gives shape to our emotions, makes them visible and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them, a seal representing all those works that, by means of a particular form, have incarnated the universal nature of human emotions.

This thought is not too far from the system described in 1953 by the American aesthetic philosopher Susanne K. Langer in Feeling and Form. Not bad. Renée, the self-taught philosopher is in good company here. But what does this tell us about Barbery’s novels?

Both novels are presented as a series of monologues. Most refer to life and death as experienced in a particular apartment house in a chichi neighborhood in Paris. The concierge, Renée, is introduced in Gourmet Rhapsody as one of many voices describing an arrogant and frequently despised man, Pierre Arthens, who calls himself “the greatest food critic in the world.” Arthens is on his death bed. His monologues concern a forgotten taste that he is desperately trying to identify before he expires. The issue is whether or not he will succeed. The other voices utter their hatred, fear, and reluctant love of this relentless swellhead, creating an oral mosaic surrounding the thoughts of the dying man. The novel is ironic, sentimental and moving. 

In Hedgehog the monologues emerge from two characters only. The concierge, Renee, in her fifties who is described as a short, ugly, and plump. She is a widow and a reclusive reader, particularly interested in art, philosophy and Japan, three preoccupations which fascinate Muriel Barbery as well. The second voice in Hedgehog is that of a 12-year-old girl named Paloma who lives with her family in the apartment house. She is presented as a child of genius who records her innermost thoughts in secret notebooks. The words of these two misfits form a philosophical dialogue that drives the book forward until, a little over a third of the way through, a Japanese widower, a Mr. Ozu, moves into the apartment once occupied by the late M. Arthens. At this point, a genuine plot emerges to help drive the philosophical essays. Mr. Ozu’s relationship with Renée eventually brings Paloma into direct contact with the concierge and leads their dialogue to its ultimate conclusion.

Ah, but here we come to the crux of the philosophical novel. It concerns the relationship between Story and Philosophy, namely which serves which? But first, let me assure my readers, especially those who love Hedgehog that there is indeed much to love about this book. There is much beauty, much elegance and much wisdom to savor and enjoy. Yet, in all honesty, that enjoyment comes at a cost; a cost that all readers and audience members pay to enter the literary or dramatic experience. It is called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” There are a number of conditions in Hedgehog that require my suspension of disbelief. Here are the two most important ones.

1. Can I actually pretend that 12-year-old Paloma is capable of the thoughts that she expresses in her (sometimes snotty) essays? No, but I will suspend my disbelief for the sake of her amusingly self-indulgent “profound thoughts” and the suspicion that Barbery will not actually allow her to commit suicide and burn down the apartment house.

2. I simply cannot pretend that Renée has come to her so elegantly disciplined structure of thought through her own private efforts. There really is too much evidence of the author’s training at the École Normale Supérieure and her subsequent teaching experience evident in Renée’s reasoning. Renée’s philosophical meditations are fundamentally Barbery’s own and we are the students in her classroom. But I suspend my disbelief in order to enjoy her thoughts, savor her wit and irony and frankly find out what will happen to Renée after Ozu appears to break through the armor of her philosophizing.

All of this is well worth the price; I am having a lovely read…up until page 316. (Caveat:  spoilers ahead.) In the space of less than a page, in an act of blatant authorial manipulation, Barbery completely reverses the effect of her elegant workmanship. A laundry truck! Out of nowhere! This accident is just too ludicrous and heavy handed to abide. While the last revelation of the dying gourmand is sentimental to the point of cliché, it is acceptable within the irony of the oral mosaic we have described above. This out of nowhere accident in Hedgehog however, is designed solely to force the final insights of Paloma and Renée concerning the beauty of this world and finding “always within never.” But it turns the book’s harmony into a jarring dissonance that pollutes the whole experience – a cheap, mawkish shot, to say the least. If Barbery is content to mar an otherwise beautiful achievement with an Existential cliché, so be it; Absurdism is another French phenomenon. A better ending would have embraced an integration of action and thought through a final metaphor that was more organic to her text. Alas, I will now await Muriel Barbery’s third novel in the hope that she can finish her new work with the same exquisite serenity that informs her Web site.