San Francisco Treasure #1 – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

A couple months ago, a friend and I were talking about mementos… (in fact here very excellent thoughts on the topic are here.) I, unfortunately, am a memento junkie. I don’t need professional psychiatric intervention or anything, but I like things that remind me of experiences. When I look or touch something that reminds me of a trip or memory, I feel warm and happy.

But I really do try to limit the number of treasures I bring back from a trip, because I already have a house full of stuff…

I am going to highlight some of my treasures on my recent trip, starting with my new favorite book…

I underestimate how much I am going to read on vacation… always. Waiting for the plane, on the plane, other random times… just a lot of reading. And I finished two books (The Privileges by Jonathan Dee and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs – both excellent) and I still had two days and a whole day of travel left. I went with a friend who was at the conference with me (the work part of the trip) to Target with the hopes of getting a book to last me the rest of the trip.

A couple things:

1. I hate hate hate hate hate hate buying books. Ever since rediscovering the free joy of the library in my 30s, paying for books seems like true madness.
2. Target? for a book? I am dead common in my taste in almost everything – clothes, food, liquor, decor… but in books and music I pride myself in having a higher taste, so I wasn’t hopeful about my prospects at Target.

But the Foster City Target had some contenders. I played with just relenting and picking up a couple from a teen series. I could leave them on the plane and it would be like it never happened. But THEN I spotted the monthly selection for the book club I am in – the one I had given up on getting read because the library has me on the hold list for it until I retire.

I put the library out of my mind and snagged it. And then next to it was one copy left of a book that looked interesting: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I am not sure why, but I grabbed it too. I can’t even recreate my thinking for why. I had a book… why would I get two from Target when I could get hundreds from the library… for FREE??

And then just like that I have a new favorite book. I didn’t know it until I nestled into the hotel bed that night and started reading it.

It is an international bestseller, translated from the French, and tells the story of a kind Japanese man, a chubby French concierge, and a privileged, superintelligent, troubled French girl.

The characters are heartbreakingly wonderful. Renee, the concierge is my favorite. A chubby, unattractive woman who seeks only to be alone. She has the intelligence, warmth, and pluck of the character from my last favorite book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but without the natural advantages and ease of life that I (most decidedly unfairly) assume that petite, pretty girls have. Her musings on philosophy, art, and class differences are dead-on. And many of the passages caught me unaware – crying at how much it spoke to me. Seriously, it is so corny, but I haven’t felt a connection to a book like this since I was a kid.

Lots of the characters’ favorites are my favorites too, which endeared me to the book even more: cold noodles with peanut sauce, still life paintings, philosophy, dogs, cats, literature, pastries wrapped in tissue, tablecloths, veterinarians, tea.

I recommend this book to everybody, but I can’t lend mine out… it is too much of a treasure to trust to the world.

A random assortment of passages that caught my breath in my chest and put tears in my eyes:

“To beauty all is forgiven, even vulgarity. Intelligence no longer seems an adequate compensation for things – some sort of balancing of the scales offered by nature to those less favored among her children – no, it is a superfluous plaything that exists only to enhance the value of the jewel.”

“Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea… And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.”

“There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required simply to support our primitive requirements, we wonder, bewildered, where Art fits in.”

“Moreover, Olympe Saint-Nice apparently does not wish to claim her birthright: she aspires neither to a rich marriage, nor to the corridors of power, nor to diplomacy, and least of all to any sort of celebrity. Olympe Saint-Nice wants to be come a veterinarian.”

“I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.”

“Thus, as I have neither future nor progeny nor pixels to deaden the cosmic awareness of absurdity, and in the certainty of the end and the anticipation of the void, I believe I can affirm that I have not chosen the easy path.”

“If you have but one friend, make sure you choose her well.”

“We are filled with the energy of constantly wanting that which we cannot have, we are abandoned at dawn on a field littered with corpses, we are transported until our death by projects that are no sooner completed than they must be renewed. Yet how exhausting it is to be constantly desiring… We soon aspire to pleasure without the quest, to a blissful state without beginning or end, where beauty would not longer be an aim or a project, but the very proof of our nature. And that state is Art… when we gaze at a still life, when – even though we did not pursue it – we delight in its beauty, a beauty borne away by the magnified and immobile figuration of things, we find pleasure in the fact that there was no need for longing, we may contemplate something we need not want, may cherish something we need not desire.”

“‘We can be friends,’ he says. ‘We can be anything we want to be.'”

“Do you know that it is in your company that I have had my finest thoughts?… All those hours drinking tea in the refined company of a great lady who has neither wealth nor palaces, only the bare skin in which she was born – without those hours I wold have remained a mere concierge, but instead it was contagious, because the aristocracy of the heart is a contagious emotion, so you made of me a woman who could be a friend…”

“Because from now on, for you, I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world.”


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