“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This is the opening of the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by philosopher-critic Isaiah Berlin. Remembering these words was what prompted me to pick up Muriel Barbery’s second novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog in a local bookstore about five years ago.
I was instantly reminded of Tolstoy. Yet when I read the synopisis on the back cover, I was disappointed. No mention of Tolstoy, nor Berlin. The premise still intrigued me, yet it was not until last month that I actually read the novel. Indeed, there are references to the great Russian writer. The story takes places in Paris, concentrating on characters who reside in a high-end apartment building. The main character, Renee Michel, owns a cat, not coincidentally, named Leo. Later, she is stunned to discover her new neighbor’s two felines are called Kitty and Levin (p. 150). These are, of course, specific references to Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina. Renee, though a humble, formally uneducated concierge, loves philosophy, Japanese art films, and War and Peace.
The novel makes no mention of Isaiah Berlin, nor his essay. The true Tolstoy connection, however, is the one that is unspoken, assumed in everything. Renee describes herself as “short, ugly and plump” (p. 19). It is this unassuming elegance, however, which eventually attracts the attention of Kakuro Ozu, the mysterious, new Japanese resident in her building.
“She’s not what we think.” Ozu confides in twelve-year-old Paloma, a fellow resident and philosopher. “She radiates intelligence…Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the simple refinement of the hedgehog; a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary- and terribly elegant.”
Indeed. Awkward externally. Internally a searcher of beauty and one single truth. Recalling a camellia growing against moss, she defines her focus for us as the “contemplation of beauty within the very moment of life.” (p. 101).
Defining Renee as a hedgehog has further implications. Not only is she a peculiar mix of beautiful and awkward, but she is single-minded, focused. In short, she is Berlin’s interpretation of how the Greek poet Archilochus depicts the hedgehog.
“one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those on one side who relate everything to a single central vision…and on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory” (Berlin). Berlin continues to name Dante as a hedgehog (having one central vision), but Shakespeare as a fox (pursuing many ends “with no moral or aesthetic principle”). According to Berlin, foxes would be Aristotle, Erasmus, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac and Joyce. Hedgehogs are Plato, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and Proust. The remainder of Berlin’s essay proves to his readers how Tolstoy, an intuitive fox, strives to transform himself, and thoroughly believes in being a hedgehog.
This single-minded focus is even mirrored in the precocious Paloma, the neighbor who at twelve years old has despaired of a purpose to life and has determined to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Paloma still retains a sense of sweetness even while arrogantly demeaning her family and neighbors in the journals she faithfully maintains.
As she is pulled in by her father to watch a rugby match, she describes the Maori player during his haka, or “warrior chant.” She writes, “What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy…it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself by staying centered. That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance – everyone could feel it…giving his strength to the group.” (p. 40-41)
A single central vision. A hedgehog.
We begin to see the struggle of hedgehog and fox surface in an early comment which Renee delivers to fellow-resident Bernard Grelier. “War and Peace is the staging of a determinist vision of history.” (p. 49). Again, this drives us back to Berlin’s interpretation of Tolstoy as a conflicted hedgehog. According to Berlin, Tolstoy fought to believe in “great men” determining their own destiny, but succumbed to the mere illusion of free will. Tolstoy’s preoccupation with history led him to wrestle with the appearance of a free will and “first causes” of events. He tried to create a “unifying pattern of the world for a monistic vision of life on the part of a fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog.” It was a search for meaning, a single over-arching purpose in life. For a sharp contrast, for example, one might juxtapose Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in order to examine their differing views on free will and fate.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog revolves largely around the blossoming friendship of Renee Michel and Kakuro Ozu. Renee learns to discuss the qualities of Dutch and Italian painting, her favorite Japanese films, as well as her troubled, neglected past with Kakuro in an easy fashion. Even so, the emphasis is on the “contemplation of beauty.”
Renee discovers from her one friend Manuela that Kakuro has decorated his apartment with elegant, assymetrical designs. One lamp of a kind. One singular table. Nothing is the same. Nothing matches. Renee’s reaction is noteworthy: “I’ve never thought about it. But it’s true that we tend to decorate our interiors with superfluous things.” (p. 161) Manuela does not seem to comprehend. Indeed, I am not sure I do either. It is as if she were speaking of her soul, and not merely her living quarters.
Muriel Barbery has written a book in which the reader can appreciate the delicate flavors of zaru ramen and Jasmine tea, alongside the quiet beauty of a camellia. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a beautiful book on the possibilities of unlikely friendship and on finding the one truth and beauty in life.