New Books Report: Muriel Barbery, Michael Kimball, Strange Harbors

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This bookish comedy has been a recent literary sensation in France, and I imagine it will continue to find satisfied readers around the world. It’s about Renee, an elderly concierge in an expensive Paris apartment who lives in a dowdy servant’s nest, answering to insufferable rich people and carefully maintaining her secret: she is a brilliant self-taught intellectual, smarter than any of the educated people who surround her.

This fact comes out delightfully in an early sequence when she lets a clever remark about Karl Marx slip to an obnoxious young gentleman, then quickly takes it back because, she realizes, she must maintain her peasant aura in order to keep her job. It’s a nifty concept for a book, though I began to enjoy the story less when different characters from the apartment building took turns in the spotlight. Another main character is the angst ridden teenager Paloma, who despises her rich parents and has vague ideas of committing an act of terrorism to shake up her chic neighborhood. I like Paloma the intellectual brat, but not as much as I like Renee the intellectual servant. Renee is a great character (I can imagine any number of great actresses in the role) whose slovenly philosophical glory reminds me a bit of the rat “Firmin” in the book Firmin by Sam Savage.

(Interestingly, I understand Firmin has also recently become a sensation in Europe. This was also a Lit-Blog Co-op selection. I don’t know what this current explosion of interest in meta-literary tragicomedy means, but it must be a good sign.)

Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball

This sad story about a suicidal misfit is related entirely via a fictional archive of unsent letters, notes and clippings gathered by poor Jonathan Bender before he kills himself. The material is organized chronologically from 1966 to 1999, and through the fragmented (and suspect) narrative we discover that this character’s father was brutal and incapable of love, and that his mother was weak and scatter-brained. We watch him grow into a semi-cool teenager who learns how to love women and find work (improbably, as a TV weatherman) but the letters prove the character to be frequently out of touch with reality, and hiding it all too well. His good fortune slips away by his early thirties, and the book ends abruptly when he ends his life.

I’m not sure if I’m satisfied by this story. At times Michael Kimball’s approach seems to veer towards McSweeney-esque deadpan humor, and one of the back cover blurbs describes this book’s ability to make you “laugh so hard”. But there isn’t much laughter here, and I am not sure whether or not I am supposed to think that the main character suffers from schizophrenia, or if he is supposed to have been destroyed by his father, or if he is simply meant to be a self-pitying asshole whose problems are his own fault. All three things seem only half true, because the character does not make as vivid an impression as I would like in a novel like this. I admire the experiment Michael Kimball attempts here, though.

Strange Harbors edited by John Biguenet and Sidney Wade

This is a beautiful, artistically packaged volume of selected international short prose pieces and poems, published with original language text and English translation facing each other on every page. Edith Grossman is a featured translator in this issue, and notable contributions by Emmanuel Moses, Ewa Lipska, Ricardas Gavelis and Murathan Mungan. It’s a treat to look at the original languages in their distinctive typefaces while experiencing each work: Romanian, Lithuanian, Catalan, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Bengali, French, Turkish, Spanish, Arabic, Polish, Latvian, Tagalog. This anthology veers towards enigmatic short works, making the book easy to browse and enjoy.

3 Responses

  1. PS – the concierge (the
    PS – the concierge (the modern term is gardien) in my buildng in Paris was in no way a closet intellectual. She just retired, but while she was on the job, she spent most of her time sitting in the café next to our building. And she wasn’t reading Sartre.

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