Saved by Camellias: Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog

We often hide our true selves from people around us. Perhaps our authenticity is actually what the world needs.

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To the upper class people who live in her elegant Parisian apartment building, Renée Michel is a simple concierge. They would never guess the secret that she guards every waking minute. It is a terrible weight on her conscience and a deep embarrassment. Due to a traumatic event that occurred in her family when she was a child, she lives in mortal fear that someone will see through the chinks in her armor, that someone will see beyond the hedgehog spines that protect her soft and vulnerable core. Her secret? Renée loves to read and think about subjects way above her station. She has a taste for cultured things: art, music, film and philosophy. She loves and appreciates beauty and is particularly fond of Japanese culture. One of the few things she does allow herself is a garden with beautiful camellias, which can be passed off as part of her job. There are clues. It just takes the right people to follow them.

Paloma Joss is the world weary daughter of an upper class yet provincial family. At twelve, she sees her family’s shortcomings and fears being sealed in the fish-bowl of modern adult life. She has no one to confide in and feels increasingly alien to the people around her.  Seeing nothing but futility, she has decided to document the last six months of her existence and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Best laid plans do so often go awry.

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These two women, who meet and become friends very late in the novel, are the narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, their individual voices being reinforced by a change in font. This is a story that will ring true to anyone who has felt left out of society, anyone who finds that the things they love most are not valued very much by most people. As a tribe, we are most likely to open up to others that don’t fit in: lonely children, alcoholics, addicts and people who are not “respectable”. Those people are less likely to make us uncomfortable than upper class folks who seem uninterested in life, those who have the privilege of being able to afford anything, but don’t seem to have any interests. When we do find kindred souls, we tend to bond deeply. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about those meetings between souls and how they change the world, even in the midst of death and decay.

There is a moment near the end of the novel, when the son of a former tenant comes to see Renée, who he knows as Madame Michel. This young man had a serious drug addiction when he lived in the building and has lived to tell the tale.

“In the flower bed, over there” –he points toward the far side of the courtyard– “there are some pretty little red and white flowers, you planted them there, didn’t you? And one day I asked you what they were but I wasn’t able to remember the name. And yet I used to think about those flowers all the time, I don’t know why. They’re nice to look at, and when I was so bad off  I would think about those flowers and it did me good. So I was in the neighborhood just now and I thought, I am going to ask Madame Michel, maybe she can tell me.”

Slightly embarrassed, he waits for my reaction.

“It must seem weird, no? I hope I’m not scaring you, with this flower business.”

“No, not at all. If only I’d known the good they were doing you…I’d have planted them all over the place!”

He laughs like a delighted child.

“Ah, Madame Michel, you know, it practically saved my life. That in itself is a miracle! So can you tell me what they are called?”

Yes, my angel, I can. Along the pathways of hell, breathless, one’s heart in one’s mouth, a faint glow: they are camellias.

“Yes,” I say. “They are camellias.”

He stares at me, wide-eyed. A tear slips across his waiflike cheek.

“Camellias…” he says, lost in a memory that is his alone. “Camellias, yes.” He repeats the word, looking at me again. “That’s it. Camellias.”

 

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All images are Public Domain via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Scott Stabile

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Share your gifts. Learn from the gifts of others.
Stay open to whichever role — teacher and/or student — life is calling on you to play. And bring as much acceptance and love to each performance.

When we walk through life as only a teacher, we miss out on learning from the world around us.

When we walk through life as only a student, we miss out on sharing our unique vision of the world.
Scott Stabile

Public Domain Image via Pixnio

 

Quote for Today: Virgil Kalyana Mittata Iordache

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I guess that sometimes it just takes a long walk through the darkness, a long walk through the darkest shadows and corners of your soul to realize that those are a part of you as well, that you’ve created through your experiences and thoughts those parts within yourself and as much as you can choose to fear them and repress them, they will require your attention one day, they will need your care and acceptance before you can clean them away and turn the lights on. For you refuse to shine the light on something that is imperfect, because you fear judgement and rejection, but you can always choose to look towards the light as the only source of true beauty and love that can help you in the cleaning process.

–Virgil Kalyana Mittata Iordache

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Paulo Coelho

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I’m always a mystery to myself. If I knew in the first hours of the morning, what I’m going to do, what is going to happen, what attitude or decision should I take? I think my life would be deadly boring because, well, what makes life interesting is the unknown. It is the risks that we take every single moment of our day — of a single day. So, I think that this contradiction should be accepted. Having said that, I mean that learning how to live with our contradictions does not keep us away from the ethic and respecting our neighbor, and learning about tolerance, and learning about compassion.
Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemy of Pilgrimage”, On Being interview with Krista Tippett

Public Domain Image via pexels.com

Quote for Today: C. JoyBell C.

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“They are angry with me, because I know what I am.” Said the little eagle. “How do you know that they are angry with you?” “Because, they despise me for wanting to soar, they only want me to peck at the dirt, looking for ants, with them. But I can’t do that. I don’t have chicken feet, I have eagle wings.” “And what is so wrong with having eagle wings and no chicken feet?” Asked the old owl. “I’m not sure, that’s what I’m trying to find out.” “They hate you because you know that you are an eagle and they want you to think you are a chicken so that you will peck at the ground looking for ants and worms, so that you will never know that you are an eagle and always think yourself a chicken. Let them hate you, they will always be chickens, and you will always be an eagle. You must fly. You must soar.” Said the old owl.
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Haruki Murakami

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For me- and for everybody else, probably- this is my first experience growing old, and the emotions I’m having, too, are all first-time feelings. If it were something I’d experienced before, then I’d be able to understand it more clearly, but this is the first time, so I can’t. For now all I can do is put off making any detailed judgments and accept things as they are. Just like I accept the sky, the clouds, and the river. And there’s also something kind of comical about it all, something you don’t want to discard completely.
Haruki MurakamiWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Image: Crazy Frickin’ Lady © Orin Zebest with CCLicense

Quote for Today: Anaïs Nin

You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too. No, I think there was too rigid a pattern. You came out of an education and are supposed to know your vocation. Your vocation is fixed, and maybe ten years later you find you are not a teacher anymore or you’re not a painter anymore. It may happen. It has happened. I mean Gauguin decided at a certain point he wasn’t a banker anymore; he was a painter. And so he walked away from banking. I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.

Anaïs Nin