Those books, pasted together by my grandmother, year after year, replaced the cognitive exercise of memory for me. Sitting on a section of wall-to-wall carpeting, drinking the bubbling red birch beer from a tinted brown glass, I reestablished my relationships with the members of my family. This is where I put it all together and perpetuated the lies. Not malicious lies, but lies with so many years to develop that we forgot the truth because nobody rehearsed it. When Mark was sentenced to sixty days in a twelve-step rehab program in 1991, he wrote an inventory of his experiences with drugs and alcohol that filled a whole notebook, and then he gave it to us to read. It was in those pages that I learned he had once tapped the powder out of horse tranquilizer capsules, melted it down, and shot it into his veins for a high that lasted fourteen days. My God, I thought, Oh my God. This is Mark’s story? Okay, now put the cooked-down shot-up horse tranquilizer against the pictures in the album. What do you get? Collage. Dry made wet and introduced into the body. Cut cut cut. It’s not so radical.
Consider yourself and the cello. As you play the music moves out to the listener, and also enters the core of your own being, for somehow you are tuned to the cello. Well, I am persuaded that this is because you are a chord. I am a chord. Our DNA dictates our physicality–made up of billions of little notes–on a basic level. Add to that our geography, background, et cetera, and you have your original score. Life is the layering of chords, but the underlying one that we are will never change. This brings us to string theory and love. Our personal chord resonates with the personal ones of others, and sometimes we encounter another person who is completely harmonious with us. It is a dominant, overwhelming attraction on the DNA level. However, such a person can appear to be our opposite–and that’s where this ‘opposites attract’ notion comes from–because they have tuned their chord in a different way. In reality, we are attracted to the person we have chosen not to become, an alternative adjustment to a chord that is nearly the same as our own. The clashing portions of the chords sounding together advance the richness of it.
I visit him a few times downtown
while he paints.
We talk about how he’s going to Spain
for the fall semester
and he shows me a painting he did
and points to this one part,
a bridge, and tells me he thought of me
when he painted it.
It is so sad
how knowing something
can make me so happy.
― Samantha Schutz, I Don’t Want To Be Crazy
Fireworks, Vernon Bridge, Theodore Earl Butler, 1908
The real protagonist of the story, however, is the magic ring, because it is the movements of the ring that determine those of the characters and because it is the ring that establishes the relationships between them. Around the magic object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself. We might say that the magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events. . . We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.
Imagine all the people you meet in your life. There are so many. They come in like waves, trickling in and out with the tide. Some waves are much bigger and make more of an impact than others. Sometimes the waves bring with them things from deep in the bottom of the sea and they leave those things tossed onto the shore. Imprints against the grains of sand that prove the waves had once been there, long after the tide recedes.
We often hide our true selves from people around us. Perhaps our authenticity is actually what the world needs.
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.
These two women, who meet and become friends very late in the novel, are the narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of theHedgehog, 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.”
To be rejected by someone doesn’t mean you should also reject yourself or that you should think of yourself as a lesser person. It doesn’t mean that nobody will ever love you anymore. Remember that only ONE person has rejected you at the moment, and it only hurt so much because to you, that person’s opinion symbolized the opinion of the whole world, of God.
―Jocelyn Soriano, Mend My Broken Heart
Every human relationship begins with a coincidence. Even the most fundamental relationship – that of parent and child – begins entirely with a coincidence. The child is produced by whatever serendipity brought its parents together, and the fact that the child was born to its particular parents instead of to another couple is pure happenstance. Thus, children have no choice over the relationship that is most important to their existence.
By contrast, friends and lovers choose each other, but even these choices are reactions to whatever random coincidence made the resulting relationship possible.
―Zack Love, Sex in the Title: A Comedy about Dating, Sex, and Romance in NYC
This world isn’t a battlefield. Someday you will realise how your success depends on a bunch of other people and that day you will be wiser. You will know how connected we all are.
Either we all make it or none of us does.
―Jasleen Kaur Gumber