Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The elegance of a French author

I might have seemed lazy during the past month, but believe me, I have a solid excuse. I was travelling to promote a new novel, spending almost every night in a different bed and rising at the crack of dawn to catch the next flight. The good news is I met some wonderful writers along the way - about whose books I'll be blogging in future.

Let me start with someone close to home (I'm now referring to my European branches rather than my African roots): the French novelist Muriel Barbery. I was asked to interview the author of the astonishingly popular The Elegance of the Hedgehog at a literary festival in South Africa. She charmed the capacity audience with her intelligence, humour and warmth - three qualities also found in abundance in her best-selling novel.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was a word-of-mouth phenomenon in France, where it was published in 2006, topping the best-seller lists for more than six months. Over the next four years close to five million copies have been sold in about forty languages - and Madame Barbery still finds it hard to believe that she has become such a successful writer. It is a book full of 'Profound Thoughts' (as Paloma, the precocious young protagonist, calls some of her diary entries) rather than action, and it is very much driven by character rather than plot. Or perhaps by place even more than character. It is a Parisian story, set in a specific street and a specific building - 7 Rue de Grenelle - an elegant apartment block inhabited by a few wealthy families. Among these privileged people are Paloma's parents and older sister, whose meaningless lives depress Paloma so much that she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The other protagonist, whose point of view is alternated with Paloma's, is a fifty-something widow - poor, unattractive, lonely - named Renée, the congièrge of the building. But Renée is an autodidact with a passion for literature, films, art, philosophy, and an inner life far richer than anyone else in the building. Paloma and Renée are both befriended by a new inhabitant, the mysterious Monsieur Ozu of Japanese origin, and then things start changing in their lives...

It's true that Paloma sometimes sounds just a little too clever - even for an extremely clever pre-adolescent - and that the outcome of her meeting with Renée could probably be foreseen. But don't be mistaken, this is not a silly fairytale with a happily-ever-after ending. (The ending is actually quite sad. Be warned.) No, it is an amusing and accessible story dealing with profound philosophical and metaphysical questions such as the meaning of life and the search for beauty, as all worthwhile literature should.

And if you happen to read Barbery's previous novel, The Gourmet (or The Gourmet's Feast as it is titled in the USA), which has only been translated into English after the international success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you will be delighted to meet many of the same characters in the same building. No, Barbery is not planning a best-selling series about the inhabitants of a building. The two books could be read in any order or each on its own. It reminded me a little of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy (Blue, White and Red), where a minor character in one film becomes the protagonist of one of the other two films.

And the cinema reference is not out of place in a novel that owes the name of one of its characters to the author's self-confessed passion for the work of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Read it, enjoy it - and then try to see at least one of Ozu's magnificent films, like Tokyo Story, Early Spring or Late Autumn.


  1. Marita

    Thanks for a wonderful blog. Attended the Huisgenoot function in Pretoria recently and have since bought three of your books including the latest.

    Jeanne Prinsloo South Africa

  2. Geagte Marita

    Ek het so bietjie navorsing gedoen oor wie my blog volg en toe sien ek vandag daar het `n persoon uit Cabannes na my blog gekyk. Nadat ek deur al my vriende en gereelde lesers gegaan het is die enigste antwoord op my vraag Marita van der Vyver.

    Ek skryf dus om te vra of dit werklik die geval is of ek my `n rat voor die oë draai. As dit nie so is nie wees asseblief so gaaf om `n paar van my artikels te lees by gyshough.blogspot.com as jy `n tydjie kan afknip om my te laat weet wat jy dink (by gyshough@gmail.com) sal ek groot waarde daaraan heg.

    Groete uit Stellenbosch
    Gys Hough

  3. That's great, Jeanne! You keep on reading my books and my blog and I'll keep on writing those books and this blog.

  4. Jammer, Gys, maar ek woon nie in Cabannes nie en ek weet nie van jou blog nie - maar nou sal ek beslis daarna gaan kyk.