05.01.09

Pardon Our French

Sara Nelson says a conversation between Adam Gopnik and a bestselling French novelist at the PEN World Voices Festival was a dream for Francophiles who had the chance to soak in an evening about French literature—in French.

Most of the voices heard at the Cantor Film Center auditorium last night were in French—and I’m talking about the audience. The sold-out house that had come to hear novelist Muriel Barbery in conversation with the American Adam Gopnik were obvious Francophiles who didn’t seem to need the translator who’d been provided. “My English is so... bad,” Barbery announced from the stage in what over the hour was revealed to be characteristic—and oh-so-French coy self-deprecation. What resulted was a somewhat awkward three-and then four-way conversation between the philosophy professor-turned-bestselling author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, whose English was not nearly so bad as she’d pretended, Adam Gopnik, the Francophile New Yorker writer and author whose French seemed pretty good, and that translator—who seemed to grow increasingly frustrated that his work was not really needed.

Sometimes, as Adam Gopnik said, an odd and wonderful book arises “out of the roiling seas of publishing”—and this year, Hedgehog is it.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, of course, is the surprise bestseller which had no takers in the U.S. until it had become a hit all over Europe (over one million copies sold in France alone) and was scooped up by tiny Europa Editions here. The story of a Parisian little rich girl and her crusty apartment-building concierge, it is a mix of philosophy and psychology, a precious gem of a novel—or a bit twee, depending. Sometimes, as Adam Gopnik said, an odd and wonderful book arises “out of the roiling seas of publishing”—and this year, Hedgehog is it.

the-elegance-of-the-hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog. By Muriel Barbery. $15. 336 pages. Europa Editions. ()

But for all its depiction of contemporary French culture—the story takes place on the Left Bank’s Rue de Grenelle in Paris, not far from the venues depicted in Gopnik’s own memoir, Paris to the MoonHedgehog is really an international book, focused as it is on universal topics of childhood, philosophy, love, and art. The book—and this hour-long conversation—are about much more than France, even despite the very Frenchness of its participants: Barbery moues and preens in that coyly self-conscious way of the jolie-laide as Gopnick gently questions her, in a mix of languages, about how she came to write the novel, her inspirations. (“Was the character of Paloma influenced by J.D. Salinger?” he asks, leadingly. Barbery looks to the audience, and says primly, “non.”) In fact, there is at least as much discussion—in the book and in this conversation—of Japanese culture. Married to a Frenchman who fell in love with Japan as a teenager, Barbery so longed to go there that when her French publisher asked her what kind of advance she wanted for this book, her second, she replied, “Two weeks in Japan.” She is very attracted to the minimalist Japanese culture—“In France we like to do a lot with a lot. In Japan, they do a lot with very little”—but she remains very French in her literary leanings.

Hedgehog, Gopnick points out, is decidedly Gallic in its elaborate language, befitting an author who arrived in Japan with only three books, all of them by countrymen: Les Liasons Dangereuses, a compilation of the works of Racine, and the complete Flaubert. “There’s no better way to stay connected to the French language than to read a few pages of Flaubert from time to time,” she confides. That, and to continue to favor French cooking: In this way, at least, Barbery differs from her heroine, who would take sushi over sauces any day.

The audience eats it all up of course, and is particularly charmed by Barbery’s many references to her husband, Stefan, who is her first and only reader and who gave her both the title and the idea for the ending of Hedgehog. (“That’s some husband,” Gopnik—who has written plenty about his own family life—remarked dryly.) Surprised and obviously delighted by the book’s success—“We were worried many of the books would end up on the pyre,” according to the translator—Barbery is now at work on a third novel. (The first one, published in France and about a food critic, will be out here in the fall.) “Writing for me is a sort of trance,” she said. “It’s a state of concentration that leads to the flow of completely unexpected things.”

Sara Nelson is the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.