Muriel Barbery

There are three pages of reviewer’s comments (all of them laudatory, of course) before the first page of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. One of them quotes a psychotherapist who is prescribing the novel to her patients:

“Hedgehog or Prozac? At first, the question may seem absurd. But it becomes less so when one learns that a Parisian psychotherapist is prescribing Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog to her patients. ‘Yes, I am prescribing it, and I do mean prescribing. This book can do a lot of good…[it’s] a real toolbox that one can look into to resolve one’s problems.’ …And, indeed, all women, at least once, even Carla Bruni, have lived through the kind of psychological self-denigration that Renee inflicts on herself in the opening scene of the book. The ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.”—L’Express

I was both startled and pleased to read this as I have recently become interested in the application of literature in therapeutic settings. Not much is known about this and there has been very little written on the topic. Toward the end of Barbery’s novel I began to understand the reasons the therapist is using the novel in her practice. One wonders what effects it might be having.

Barbery’s work is said to be a “novel of ideas.” It took me a while to notice that, but I did eventually begin to record several ideas, some very excellent ones indeed. The tale concerns a concierge of an apartment house in the St. Germain neighborhood in Paris Renee, the concierge, is a closet intellectual who is eventually found out by a sweet and brilliant adolescent and a newly arrived Japanese millionaire, both of whom befriend her and come to appreciate her quiet intellect. Here are a few of the passages I recorded; perhaps they indicate why the therapist recommended the book to her clients.

…mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire.

…my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art.

People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl.

I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.

…my own personal Everest will be an intellectual endeavor.

With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else than can nurture human life.

I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them.

In Japanese wabi means “an understated form of beauty, a quality of refinement masked by rustic simplicity.”

…intelligence, in itself, is neither valuable nor interesting. Very intelligent people have devoted their lives to the question of the sex of angels, for example.

What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?

I should scarcely have believed that between two people there could exist such a congruity of tastes and thought patterns.

…maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is not longer the same.

We can be anything we want to be.