Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Elegance of Intelligence in Paris: A Book Recommendation

[Originally published December 26, 2009]

In my romanticized version of Europe, after I've eaten ravioli in Roma, and sipped cappuccinos at a stand-up cafe, then I will stroll along the Seine and stop at booksellers with used treasures they sell along the river. In my romanticized version of Europe, the French and the Germans and the Albanians, they all drink good wine and smoke Gauloises at will. They eat thin slices of excellent cheese and talk about interesting things and deep things and not what they watched last night on TV. They talk about politics and paintings, they discuss books and don't care what Oprah thinks. The men read fiction and care about it. The women dress well but are also smart as hell. Together the men and the women, before they go off to have tantric sex on old-fashioned beds, they have long slow dinners at long wooden tables, or perhaps they are small round tables at an outdoor cafe on a cobblestone walkway, some Van Goghian starlight to brighten the evening, to sparkle off their bread knives.

This place I imagine is not real, I know. Oprah is shown around the world. Michael Bay films are global monsters and we stopped lighting the night with stars a long long time ago.

But then I read Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and all the intelligence and philosophy and the wit and the hope and pathos of the European, of the French, becomes real again. I haven't flown through a work of fiction like this in ages. Fact is, I keep putting the books I'm reading down (Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning "Wolf Hall" included). Barbery isn't afraid to discuss Marx and issues of class that continue today, she philosophizes on death and the meaning of life, but then she also discusses her love of Ridley Scott sci-fi movies and she quotes Eminem.

Yet for all its brainy seduction, the book is no lecture, the story no bore.

For those who require a book description, here, c/o Amazon, it is (for those who don't, skip this next paragraph):

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who, for their part, are barely aware of her existence. Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday.

How many times did I stop at my local Indigo bookstore to look at the beautiful blue of the cover and the sheer perfection of that title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. But it takes so much more to buy book, to read book, to trust all those hours to turn all those pages to force all those neurons. So I must thank my dear friend, poet, writer, and philosopher, Sana, for the suggestion. She told me I had to. And we all have friends like these. When they tell you you have to - you have to.

So I did. And now I recommend it to you.

Follow me on twitter; you'll love it; I swear.


  1. This book sounds wonderful! I'll try to read it, some day (perhaps after 2011....), and I guess I'll thank you and your friend Sana.

    I liked the rhythm in the first paragraph. It's very good read aloud. "They talk about politics and paintings, they discuss books and don't care what Oprah thinks. The men read fiction and care about it. The women dress well but are also smart as hell."

    I needed to consult the dictionary to find out what 'tantric sex' is.

    I know most of the rest of the things.

  2. It is wonderful! Wonder if it's big over there?

    The tantric sex thing is an old Sting reference - I'm sure it's googleable.

  3. I refrain from googling any expression that has 'sex' in it. Oh do you do it often?

  4. It does look like an interesting read and one I'll be sure to take a look at the next time I'm at Chapters or Indigo.
    Every happiness to you in the new year,

  5. Thanks, Simone. Love the name of your blog. And good reading to you in the new year.

  6. johanna4:31 p.m.

    oh my. what a wonderful description. thank you! off to the book shop for me!

  7. cool compliment from a similarly cool cat. and yeah, i think you'd like, j.


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