I’ve stayed in much richer ones than that. I’ve stayed in one so rich that when you pulled the lavatory-plug it played a tune… Rich people – you have to be sorry for them. They haven’t the slightest idea how to spend their money; they haven’t the slightest idea how to enjoy themselves. Either they have no taste at all, or, if they have any taste, it’s like a mausoleum and they’re shut up in it.
—Jean Rhys (Good Morning, Midnight, p. 448)
I should have warned you. This is a Japanese thing … my daughter’s idea to import it. When you flush, it set off the music, it’s … more pleasant, you see?
—Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, p. 221)
If you happen to be flying from Armenia to the US you of course know that there were not, until spring of 2010, any transatlantic flights out of Yerevan.1 Thus one has the pleasure of enjoying a пересадка in Moscow, a Zwischenlandung in Frankfurt, or an escale in Paris.2 During one of these terrestrial interludes I picked up The Elegance of the Hedgehog in one of the bookstores at Charles de Gaulle aéroport, drawn by the publisher’s distinctive design and the word ‘hedgehog’; I read it on the flight from Paris to Dulles. It struck me – as do most books that might make an eight hour flight seem shorter – as charming, clever, enjoyable, and not much more than that. I would have been quite satisfied with it as a book had I not picked up Barbery’s earlier short novel Gourmet Rhapsody3 at Dulles(t) airport for the return flight.
I wanted something different. I suppose I wanted to see a different stage of development in the writing, either more or less confidence in what she was doing. But Gourmet Rhapsody read like yet another chapter in some more epic novel about the charmingly quirky inhabitants of no. 7, rue de Grenelle. In doing so, it drew attention both to its own faults and to the faults of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. These faults are not so much the fault of the novelist – both novels are admirably structured, have interesting characters, and explore different points of view through a satisfying range of voices – as of the sentimentalist. Although both novels are supposedly about adults who have reached a certain level of mental sophistication, they are both full of interludes of behavior and thinking more suitable to fussy children.4 Although seemingly complex and rich in feeling, they are only truly satisfied by simple pleasures and really want nothing more than to either to feel loved or to express affection or closeness, or to have some sort of genuine experience not marred by the pretenses they themselves have erected. Thus Renée’s intellectual posturing and insecurity are nothing but fronts to prevent people from coming too close, and Pierre Arthens’ quest for an elusive flavor ends up being a quest for simplicity (or rusticity) and the memory of closeness with his son. Fair enough. It is, however, frustrating, that characters which at first seem to have so many facets are reduced by these means to flat caricatures of peevish need; what seemed rich and full and promising, is ultimately revealed as empty.
I am, however, very possibly wrong about all this. As an interlude of some months has passed between my reading of these novels and my writing of this crankiness, it is possible that the savor has been embittered by forgetfulness and the perusal of too many texts devoted to food.
- One hopes that after spring of 2010 some direct flights to the US will be available. [↩]
- Strangely enough, Armenian doesn’t have a word for ‘layover’ (or ‘stopover’ if you prefer). Of course one can get the meaning across through periphrasis, but ultimately one falls back on the Russian word, as is often the case. [↩]
- Published in the UK as The Gourmet. [↩]
- Which is not to say that persons who have reached an adult age do not act like children. [↩]