Connections in “The Elegance of The Hedgehog”

October 26, 2010 at 5:26 AM | Posted in Books, Movies | Leave a comment
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I was not surprised to learn, after I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog that the author, Muriel Barbery, was a Philosophy Professor and was living in Japan. Her book, tender and funny, is one of connections and  if we can get just a few of them, the book affords even more pleasure.

The first word in the novel is “Marx” and before long his lesser known The German Ideology comes up in conversation. Two pages later, the movie of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice appears just before a mention of Mahler. We are off to the connection races.

There are three connections that deepen throughout the novel:

  1. The Scything scene from Anna Karenina
  2. William of Ockham
  3. Films of Yasujiro Ozu

In the scything scene Levin, a nobleman shares the work of the reapers and begins to understand work and men who have mastery and those, like him, that don’t.

William of Ockham was a 14th Century monk and philosopher, most famous for Occam’s Razor: “the principle recommends selection of the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question.” The simplest explanation is often the best one. This sounds dull as a theme for a novel but when cast as a way to find meaning in life, to decide that you want to live, it’s profound.

The dapper Ozu (from Wikipedia)

Ozu is certainly one of the great director’s of all time and his movies must be seen — I begin with that! Barbery plays a double game with Ozu. His films are mentioned continually and then Renee, one of two major characters, a concierge in an upscale Parisian apartment building, Renee the hedgehog, becomes friends with another Ozu, a Japanese man who has just moved into her building and a distant relation of the director. They watch Ozu movies together and they find, I think, love just before she dies by being hit, not by a train like the suicide Anna Karenina but by a Dry Cleaner’s van, while attempting a good deed.

Paloma, the other major character, a delightful and precocious 12-year-old becomes friends with this modern Ozu and with Renee and decides to live, after planning not to (though we don’t take her threats too seriously.)  Here is her penultimate Profound Thought No. 15

If you want to heal/Heal others/And smile or weep/At this happy reversal of fate

Occam’s razor indeed!

Chekhov as antidote

August 12, 2010 at 6:46 AM | Posted in Books | 2 Comments
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Chekhov on my shelf


After finishing The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and blogging about it, I decided to test my thinking that a writer needs to show some sympathy for his characters, no matter how sharp the satire. It may not seem fair to compare anyone to Chekhov, particularly a writer who has written one novel. But I am here to help and not throw stones and the author should take this as a compliment. One other reason to write: the author owns a rave from a well-known writer and got reviewed on the first page of the Book Section of the NY Times. No land, for an author can get more promised than that – and so this minor arrow will not wound, if it ever gets read.  

I chose, for fairness sake, an early story by Chekhov, The Darling. It is the story of a woman who has no ideas of her own but takes on the opinions of, first, her two husbands and then a child who she is caring for at the end of the story. As the first husband dies, so does her attachment to his ideas and then the second’s falls by the wayside.  

Tolstoy commented on this story and he said that Chekhov “blessed what he had come to curse.” Chekhov narrates for us, step by step, the silliness of the woman and the blindness of  the men who fell under her spell. He could have left it at that and we could agree that Chekhov is an acute observer of humanity. But when he shows her selfless care for the child who was left motherless we don’t see guile, we see love.  

Go Rachman, owner of a rave review, and read Chekhov and then start scribbling again!

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