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

From My Garden: Twenty Camellias in Haiku

Last spring I planted camellias in our front flowerbeds, not fully appreciating what a blessing I was giving myself. My husband and I worked the soil, adding amendments to create the acidity needed for the new camellias and azaleas. We went to Maas Nursery, the best place in the Houston area to get camellias, and purchased one Royal Velvet (deep red), one Purple Dawn (purplish pink) and a variety I had never heard of before, Sadaharu Oh (pink and white) named after a baseball player. The Royal Velvet has opened three glorious blooms so far, the Purple Dawn is a week from blooming  for the first time, but the Sadaharu Oh has proved unexpectedly prolific. Eighteen blooms have come and gone over the past month and it shows no sign of slowing down. Every time I tried to count the buds I would lose track somewhere between sixty and seventy.

I have been battling a respiratory infection this winter and without the joy my camellias have brought I don’t know how I would have made it through. But there is something about the fleeting nature of the camellia flower that makes one think of mortality and the beauty of life anyway.

These photos were taken in my garden and in my home and inspired the camellia theme for the week. In turn, I was inspired by the haikus of Matsuo Bashō and decided to try my hand at haikus. Staying traditional by keeping the 5-7-5 syllable count in three lines, I also tried to keep a sense of the jarring, unexpected nature of the content. I don’t know how successful I was, but the enjoyment I received from the mental exercise was well worth the time spent. I hope you will love them.

 

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a bowl of petals

this fierce corolla looks up

to contain the sun

 

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a pink and white bloom

adorns the glossy green leaves

crowned by threads of light

 

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a bee drinks deeply

ensconced in choice filaments

briefly imprisoned

 

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 the bee roaming freely

high on nectar among petals

is distinctly small

 

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the waxy flower

incapable of flying

makes the bee her slave

 

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in the flower’s bell

a bee hangs like a clapper

that will never ring

 

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after winter rain

shining with damp radiance

blooms have not fallen

 

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a fragile wax bloom

pours out its captured water

cup overflowing

 

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flower petals moist

textured like a infant’s skin

lasting only days

 

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in winter’s darkness

the camellia flowers

bring back the sunlight

 

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blossom beneath leaves

out of reach of wind and rain

afraid of falling

 

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a fallen flower

vibrant colors bathed in tears

is already dead

 

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cradled on pine straw

the flower’s lifeless body

collects dewy tears

 

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like a fallen star

gracing my simple table

bringing nature home

 

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remaining lovely

in a dish splashed with water

bloom cut off from life

 

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like a frilly dress

layers exposed for all eyes

she remains empty

 

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moisture is fickle

too much and the bloom will rot

too little she wilts

 

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each bloom so unique

drops in her time from the plant

nature is wasteful

 

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a fleeting flower

dropping helplessly to earth

evokes our own death

 

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a flower lingers

uncoupled from life and dead

may we do the same

 

Quote for Today: Amy Lowell

Camellia Pink Flower

The Camellia Tree of Matsue

At Matsue,
There was a Camellia Tree of great beauty
Whose blossoms were white as honey wax
Splashed and streaked with the pink of fair coral.
At night,
When the moon rose in the sky,
The Camellia Tree would leave its place
By the gateway,
And wander up and down the garden,
Trailing its roots behind it
Like a train of rustling silk.
The people in the house,
Hearing the scrape of them upon the gravel,
Looked into the garden
And saw the tree,
With its flowers erect and peering,
Pressed against the shoji.
Many nights the tree walked about the garden,
Until the women and children
Became frightened,
And the Master of the house
Ordered that it be cut down.
But when the gardener brought his axe
And struck the trunk of the tree,
There spouted forth a stream of dark blood;
And when the stump was torn up,
The hole quivered like an open wound.

Amy Lowell

Public Domain Image via MaxPixel

Quote for Today: Sarah Jio

 

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My eyes blinked like a camera shutter clicking through the frames of my life, except the images were mismatched and haphazard: a ragged-looking doll with a rose-colored dress; crocheted white baby mittens, slightly unraveled; a row of tulips, vibrant red; Rex’s smile; a rusty weather vane whirling in the wind.
My eyelids fluttered, fighting to remain open, but when they closed, the welcoming image that waited beckoned me to stay, promising to give me the comfort, the peace I longed for.
The camellias.
I could see them, seemingly endless rows of big, bushy green trees with waxy leaves and showy flowers the size of saucers. Pinks, reds- bursting into bloom, as if they’d been painted by the Queen of Hearts.
Sarah Jio, The Last Camellia

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Harper Lee

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Jem opened the box. Inside, surrounded by wads of damp cotton, was a white, waxy, perfect camellia. It was a Snow-on-the-Mountain.

Jem’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Old hell-devil, old hell-devil!” he screamed, flinging it down. “Why can’t she leave me alone?”

In a flash Atticus was up and standing over him. Jem buried his face in Atticus’s shirt front. “Sh-h,” he said. “I think that was her way of telling you—everything’s all right now, Jem, everything’s all right. You know, she was a great lady.”

“A lady?” Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. “After all those things she said about you, a lady?”

“She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe… son, I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Muriel Barbery

 

Nature Camellia Spring Flowers Camellia Flower

In a split second of eternity, everything is changed, transfigured. A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar place, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss on the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling foliage, the forward rush of life is crystalized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Public Domain Image via MaxPixel.com