Excellent books are defined as such, by the reader, because they are either formative or transformative, and differentiating between the two is a difficult personal task. For example: for this reader Franny and Zooey was formative, Beyond Good and Evil, transformative. The former aided my young self immensely in the creation and realization of personhood. The latter, on the other hand, shifted reality, ever so slightly, and caused a reassessment and hence a readjustment of the world. The timing of the read and the nature of the content matters little–personhood is a work in progress, and the world will be changed by whatever necessary means (fictional, historical, etc). Hence, The Omnivore’s Dilema–formative. The Brothers Karamazov—transformative.
As you may guess, the transformative are the rarer of the two, but rarer still are those excellent books that manage somehow to do both at once–to both uphold the reader and cause the world to buck and shift beneath her. I am pleased to say the The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one such exceptional case.
Muriel Barbery‘s little masterpiece is filled with art, philosophy, and allusions to great film and greater literature, but it is not these intellectualisms that raise it above so many other novels. It is, instead, the supreme humanity of character and plot that bring to life a most nobel quest: for beauty in the mundane. “Art is life, playing to other rhythms,” our heroine, Renee, opines, in one of the very, very many quotable passages. Indeed, I agree. A great novel, like any great work of art, must, by its nature, become a lens through which the reader may perceive elemental truths brought into distinct focus. The rhythms in this case are hardly universal–perhaps neither are the truths–hence the complexity of art. When you find such a lens, however, the pleasure is oh-so sharp! This filtered and condensed joy is replayed again and again throughout Barbery’s novel, until a reader may catch her breath, or cry, at the shared beauty of it all.
I shall not attempt to convince you here that the Hedgehog will be a formative, transformative, or transcendental read–these things are strictly personal. However, I would recommend this charming audio edition as, at the very least, a much-needed diversion for late February.