The Erotic Potential of Wives and Hedgehogs
The Erotic Potential of My Wife
David Foenkinos (translated from French by Yasmine Gaspard)
(Telegram 145pp pb £7.99)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery (translated from French by Alison Anderson)
(Gallic Books 320pp hb £12.99)
David Foenkinos is young – in his early thirties – and cool, with a blog and a bd (‘bande dessinée’, ie. graphic novel) to his name. Now the author of six novels, The Erotic Potential of My Wife is his third and appeared in France to much delight in 2004. The book begins mid-crisis, protagonist Hector just descending into the metro to commit suicide. This Ordinary Joe, with boring parents and an annoyingly successful elder brother, is a collector and his passion is getting out of hand. “He had collected stamps, diplomas, paintings of moored ships, Metro tickets, first pages of novels, plastic drink mixers and cocktail sticks, corks, moments with you, Croatian maxims,” [p 18] and much more. Fortunately he has overdone the sleeping pills and falls asleep in the underground. Hector’s six-month recuperation gives him time to read up on the States, where he will pretend he has been living, and to meet Brigitte, who has similar mythomanic intentions on America. It is love at first sight.
Hector and Brigitte have good sex, set up a small business and a home together. She even asks for seconds of his mother’s soup, which means instant family acceptance. More importantly, Hector is free of any desire to collect for the first time in his life – until he finds himself idly watching his wife washing their windows. Soon he is finding any excuse for her to wash them again. Next he installs hidden cameras and films her washing them. Hector now realises, horrified, that he has begun to collect moments of his wife’s erotic attraction. He has relapsed and his mania is worse than ever.
Foenkinos makes a few gestures towards psychological motivation: he drops hints that Hector’s collecting has become his only way of feeling alive. Love ought to cure him, but old habits, including notions of worthlessness and marginality as well as the drive to collect, die hard. However, the true motive of the story is comedy. Foenkinos’s style has been compared to Woody Allen’s – but Allen is also noted for the unevenness of his work. Here the gentle bizarrerie of the situation and characters are intermittently funny, but more often feel confected with witty lines in mind and so fall flat.
Muriel Barbery’s success has been properly meteoric. Having published her first novel to moderate reviews in 2000 and continued her career as a high-school philosophy teacher, she saw her second, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, shoot to the top of the sales charts and stay there for thirty consecutive weeks in 2007. It has now sold more than a million copies in France and was the subject of bidding wars across Europe – except in England, where it has fallen to feisty newcomer Gallic Books to bring us France’s novel of the year.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the more ambitious novel of these two. It is written from the alternating viewpoints of two inhabitants of the same desirable Parisian address. Both Paloma Josse and Renée Michel live at 7, rue de Grenelle, but the former is the precocious 12-year-old daughter of champagne socialists on the fourth floor, while the latter is the 54-year-old concierge and quite uneducated – or is she? In the privacy of her lodge she reads Husserl and Kant, calls her cat Leo after Tolstoy and adores Japanese arthouse as well as Hollywood films. We discover that ‘Madame Michel’ is a keen and catholic autodidact, committed to hiding her knowledge behind the façade of a typical lumpen concierge – a spiky hedgehog on the outside but the epitome of refinement within. While Renée keeps her disdain for the privileged inhabitants of her building to herself, Paloma Josse does not hesitate to pour scorn on her family. Paloma’s diary is the acerbic record of her efforts to discover beautiful movements and profound thoughts in the world before she carries out her plan to burn down number 7 entirely and commit suicide.
The situation is patiently and finely constructed, the two very different women’s voices dovetailing in their critique of the grotesque characters they live with. Paloma’s style is spot on: her descriptions of excruciating family dinners balance mature black comedy with the impulses of a clever girl in existential crisis. It seems the story would not develop but for the arrival at number 7 of a Japanese gentleman. Despite the fascinated overtures of his most eminent neighbours, Mr Ozu prefers the company of the concierge; indeed the names of his cats, Kitty and Levin, suggest they may share some interests. He invites the concierge to dinner…
Barbery takes on easy targets here: the abuse of privilege, the redundancy of western capitalism and the emotional stultification of western culture. Paloma and Renée apart, her characters are a gallery of cut-outs – even the refined and sensitive Mr Ozu is only able to use his privilege well by virtue of his Japanese background. This is a story of simple orient-ophilia. It is also a morality play set in an ideal theatre complete with a courtyard for the groundlings. Moreover, Barbery is not averse to exploiting her reader’s emotional responses as her denouement looms.
It is hard to know whether The Elegance of the Hedgehog will be as much loved in England as it has been elsewhere. The setting and handling are beguiling, but the simplistic philosophising may not satisfy readers for whom class remains a more active and complex feature of everyday interactions. One element raises the Hedgehog far above its cousin the erotic Wife: the quality of the prose. While Foenkinos’s much-praised humour is fogged and blunted by a hopelessly erratic translation, Barbery’s novel is rendered in knowing, lucid English which is a delight in itself.