Monday, February 10, 2020

“The art of scything”

Renée Michel is the concierge at 7 rue de Grenelle, Paris. She keeps a journal. Here she likens her writing to scything, “conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation”:

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, trans. Alison Anderson (New York: Europa Editions, 2008).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a beautiful novel, made of the journal entries of Madame Michel and Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old child of affluence and resident of the building. As their journal entries show us, Madame Michel and Paloma think in remarkably similar ways about art and life and language. Rather similar to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which we see characters, at least sometimes, thinking along parallel lines, or looking at the same thing, neither of them knowing it.

But The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a perfect antidote to To the Lighthouse. Madame Michel is the kind of character who would be a mere figurant in the Woolf world, without consciousness and virtually silent. So many such characters (if they can even be called characters) populate Woolf’s novel: the maid, the cook, the women who clean up the Ramsays’ summer house, the man who helps them, the tradesmen who do repairs, the sailor and son who take Mr. Ramsay and two of his children to the lighthouse. They’re all more or less figurants, and the novel has little or no interest in what they might think and feel.

I know — To the Lighthouse is that kind of novel, and there is much in it that dazzles me, especially the eerie middle section, “Time Passes.” But there’s something wonderful about leaving that kind of novel for one in which a concierge who describes herself as “born in a bog and bound to remain there” is a secret reader of Husserl and Tolstoy and a connoisseur of Dutch still lifes and Japanese cinema. We learn about all of it from her journal. Things, or people, ain’t always what they appear to be.

My identity as a child of the working class is at work in my ambivalence about Woolf: I know that in the world of To the Lighthouse, my dad would be knocking out and redoing a wall in the Ramsays’ twenty-years-neglected bathroom. And I might be helping him if I weren’t off at university on scholarship.

[This post began as a sort of scything, texting back and forth with a friend. I don’t know how the final paragraph showed up.]

comments: 2

Fresca said...

Idea for a blog name:
“born in a blog (and bound to remain there)”

Michael Leddy said...

Good one!