Saturday, May 12, 2018

Two books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog ; Mother Tongue

Eastside Road, May 12, 2018—

Muriel Barbery : The Elegance of the Hedgehog
tr. from the French by Alison Anderson
New York : Europa Editions, 2008
isbn 978-1-933372-60-0
Tania Romanov : Mother Tongue
Palo Alto : Travelers’ Tales, 2018
isbn 978-1-509521-27-1
TWO VERY DIFFERENT BOOKS, a novel and a travel memoir, both full of insights into the human condition, individually and societally. I do think it important to read such books ; it enlarges our view of that condition, sharpening our awareness and sensitivity to the plight of others and thus deepening our understanding of the successes and failures common to us all.

Not everyone likes The Elegance of the Hedgehog. For many tastes it is, I suppose, too French, centered on life in an upscale six-storey Paris condominium, and too “intellectual,” with its (necessary) references to Marx, Husserl, Tolstoy, Mozart. But one reason it should be read by middlebrow American readers is its reminder that more literate societies are aware of such cultural identities: this is a theme of the novel.

It concerns one Renée Michel, a fortyish, plain, short, quite private widow who has worked as concierge in that condominium most of her life. There: she’s a concierge ; how many American readers will be comfortable with that? A sort of European version of a New York “super,” she sweeps the lobby, polishes the brass buttons of the elevator, receives deliveries, and keeps track of the comings and goings of visitors. To most of the residents she is invisible and inconsequential ; any meaningful private life she may have — let alone interesting ! — is unthinkable.

Except, in the course of the novel, Paloma, one of the several children in the building, a bright, observant, self-assured twelve-year-old who, though a girl, reminds me of Holden Caulfield for her uncanny identification of everything phony in the complacent society surrounding her: “ ‘Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe.”

The men heading these families — a food critic who must have modeled for the animated film Ratatouille, a government minister, others presumably independently wealthy — are mostly absent from the narrative. Their wives are intent on shopping for identifiers of their social position and, to an extent, raising children who will take their place on this empty social staircase. Except for Paloma, whose first-person narrative alternates with the concierge’s in the elegant, effective structural balance of this novels, finally of course converging in a literal deus ex machina ending that has disappointed many readers but seems to me perfectly viable, both artistically and logically.

The book recalls others: Georges Perec’s W, or the Meaning of Childhood for its structure ; Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard for its moving death scene. It is often funny as well as sardonic and, think I, pointedly accurate in its view of intellectually empty, culturally joyless contemporary society. And the characters are memorable.

Mother Tongue is, as I’ve said, quite another matter — artless rather than polished, straightforward rather than complex, descriptive rather than suggestive. The author, who I hasten to say has been an acquaintance for a number of years, was born in Serbia in 1949 to an White Russian (Ukraine) father and a Croatian mother, and spent her early childhood in a refugee camp in Trieste; the family finally reached the United States in 1953, settling in San Francisco. (I met her in Healdsburg, where she ultimately retired with her husband.)

The book is a record of her parents’ and (maternal) grandparents’ generations in what was then Yugoslavia, from the years just before World War II, when Mussolini’s ambitions reattached much of Slovenia and Croatia to Italy, through the formation and eventual crumbling of the Yugoslav state, down to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The result is an absorbing, memorable book full of attractive and sympathetic characters and non-judgmental political insights. Romanov begins with an account, humorous and evocative, of a trip she took with her husband and her aging mother — recovering from her husband’s recent death — to Istria, where they tried to find the family house and surviving cousins. From there the book flashes back to the grandparents’ time, when more-or-less secure and independent village life in such backwaters fell victim to the post-World-War-I realignment of the old Austro-Hungary.

Much of 20th-century history is the search for a new kind of security in the wake of destroyed imperialisms, and the case of the Balkans is particularly poignant. Settlers brought in by Italy displaced workers and farmers who’d been in Istria for centuries (though the grandfather proudly maintained his descent from immigrants from Montenegro, four hundred years earlier). For a time Tito’s benevolent dictatorship seemed able to hold society together, but in uncertain times, caught between the Soviet and American empires east and west, tribal assertiveness overcame any sense of community. Where once Christians and Moslems, Ukrainians, Serbs, Kosovars, Croatians, Montenegrins and Slovenians intermarried and lived in peace, inevitably the decline of social structures, weakened by interference from outside and exacerbated by power-hungry individuals within, led to violent conflict.

All that social history lies well below and behind the surface of Mother Tongue : to the credit of the author, I think, who intends to present simply the immediate human individual view of these circumstances, the excitement of transition, the triumph of survival and — in the case of her parents — transplanting to a promising new society.

The family members Romanov found in her journeys, with and without her mother, are engaging and sympathetic, sketched with a fond and expressive pen. The history is sad, inevitable, but ultimately, for the lucky, survivable. The book is warm and thoughtful.

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