Shakespeare may have been the one to remark on it in his play As You Like It, but the truth is all of us, at least the self-aware among us, have wondered at one time or another if we are merely playing the parts assigned to us and if there’s even a shred of authenticity on display for those who care to look.
For Renée, the concierge at one upscale Parisian apartment block, brought to life in all its rarefied glory and shame by Muriel Barbery in her book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the musing on this truth has long since finished, and she has accepted that she is playing the part of the grumpy, ill-kempt, poorly-educated concierge, the one long assigned to her by convention and the willingness of the wealthy tenants she looks after to not question it.
Each of them are playing their roles, and while Renée understands that she is an actor atop a less than flattering or advantageous stage and knows who she reeally is, the tenants do not and many of them, bar a precious few, are content to go along with their pre-conceived, ill-thought out view of the world which sees them as top of the pile, and someone like their concierge as scurrying around its tolerated only because its necessary edges.
“My name is Renée … I am rarely friendly – though always polite – I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusions according to which life has meaning that can be easily deciphered.” (P.15)
Renée’s one advantage, and it’s not one that fills her with any lasting joy until a new tenant Kakuro Ozu moves into the complex and challenges her to not just own she is but to put it on public display, tropes be damned, is that in secret she reads her books on philosophy, art, social theory, watches films by celebrated Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (particularly The Munekata Sisters) and exercises her well-disguised intellectualism at every turn.
The reason why the joy is fleeting is not that she doesn’t love these things – on the contrary they are her lifeforce and the sustenance she needs to get through the day – is that they can’t breathe and be given their full expression lest the tenants suspect she is more than what she appears and they take advantage of that or ridicule it.
That is Renée’s great prevailing fear; that if the truth about her and her life was exposed that she couldn’t hide away in plain sight, a protective mechanism initiated by tragic family events in her distant past.
But as The Elegance of the Hedgehog weaves its magic, a spell truncated in its power to seduce by some rather intense philosophical treatises that slow down the narrative in the first half of the book, Renée comes to realise that hiding who you are from view hurts no one but yourself and that any punitive actions that result are not worth what you must deny yourself to avoid them.
The instigator of this transformational shift in her thoughts, and approach to life is rich architect Ozu, who disregards the convention of treating the concierge as a mechanism to get things done by the tenants and not as a person.
Ozu, a wise, cultured man of ready wit, sees through Renée’s fabricated persona, as does Paloma, a precociously gifted 12 year old from the upper floors, and together these unlikely kindred spirits convince their new friend that an authentic life is the only one really worth pursuing.
And that is what makes The Elegance of the Hedgehog such a joy to read, at least once it dispenses with the over-philophising and Paloma’s gift for pre-pubescent annoying all-knowingness and commits to simply telling a highly-affecting, deeply insightful story.
The book is essentially a fairytale of sorts but one grounded in the reality of everyday life and Barbery acknowledges more than once that the road to our authentic self is strewn by a million obstacles fashioned of self-perception, social convention, prejudice, shame and ignorance, and that freeing ourselves from them is not an easy undertaking.
“Oh my gosh, I thought, does this mean that this is how we must live our lives? Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance? … Maybe that’s what being alive is all about: so we can track down those moments that are dying.” [Paloma] (P. 269)
It’s this emotional realism, this understanding that while we all want happy endings that they can’t simply be conjured out of thin air or wished into existence and that we can often be our own worst enemies when it comes to living a life that actually means somethings and isn’t a confection or act.
That Renée, and to a lesser extent Paloma, finds some measure of freedom in being herself is the main thrust of a story that in typical French fashion is welcomingly realistic about the way life gives with one hand and takes with another.
That this doesn’t quite end as you might expect is almost a given – this is no Hollwywood rom com after all – but at every point you appreciate, through Barberry’s superlative language and deeply philosophical, richly-painted insights, that that is way of things and we take the blessings bestowed on us when we can.
Yes The Elegance of the Hedgehog is slow going at times in the opening half, and suffers from perhaps too much philosophising on the vicissitudes and vagaries of life, but it is on the whole, willfully and seductively charming, particularly because it dares to offer hope with realism, an understanding that while we all want happy endings, and that they are possible, that they are not a given and may come with a far greater price than any of us expect.