Author: Muriel Barbery (Beautifully translated from French by Alison Anderson)
Publisher: Gallic (2008)
Number of Pages: 320
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I bought this book: Lent to me initially and having read it once, I had to have my own copy, so I purchased it in Hodges Figgis, Dublin.
Like a Moth to a Flame
My friend, Evelyn, recommended this book. Evelyn and I tend to like the same books and she suggested I would love it. As the book is set in my favorite city, Paris, I’m sure she must be right!
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “Nor must we forget that these old people were young once, that a lifespan is pathetically short, that one day you’re twenty and the next day you’re eighty.” (p.124)
4. “We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves.” (p.140)
3. “As far as I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering.” (p.162)
2. “If you have but one friend, make sure you choose her well.” (p.177)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?” (p.118)
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.
New Word: eructation (noun)
Definition (Source: The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th Edition): belch
Origins (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary): 1530s; from Latin eructatio ‘a belching forth’; noun of action from past participle stem of eructare ‘to belch forth, vomit’; from ex- ‘out’ + ructare ‘to belch’
As in: “There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite—a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups—…..” (p.13)
New Word: incunabulum (noun)
Definition (Source: The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th Edition): book printed before the middle-ages
Synonyms: swaddling clothes
Origins (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary): ‘swaddling clothes’; also, figuratively, ‘childhood, beginnings’; 1824; from Latin incunabula (neuter plural); ultimately from cunae ‘cradle’
As in: “ ‘I’m expecting a courier package….It’s very fragile,’ he adds, ‘do be careful, I beg you.’
‘It is an incunabulum’ he says and towards my eyes, which I try to render as glassy as possible, he directs the smug gaze of the propertied classes.” (p.32)
New Word: appanages (noun)
Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): 1) land or some other source of revenue assigned for the maintenance of a member of the family of a ruling house; 2) whatever belongs rightfully or appropriately to one’s rank or station in life; 3) a natural or necessary accompaniment, adjunct
Origins: 1595–1605; Middle French, Old French apanage, apeinaige; equivalent to apan (er) ‘to endow’ (a younger son or daughter) with a maintenance; Medieval Latin appānāre; verbal derivative of Latin pānis ‘bread’; compare Old Provençal apanar ‘to nourish’ + -age
As in: “ ‘Thus, to withdraw as far away as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appanages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea, or maybe you watch a film by Ozu….’ ” (p.94)
New Word: interstitial (adjective)
Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): 1) pertaining to, situated in, or forming interstices; 2) anatomy, situated between the cells of a structure or part: interstitial tissue
Origins (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary): 1640s; from Latin interstitium (see interstice) + -al
As in: “Interstitial is whatever has to do with an inflammation of the walls of the bladder and idiopathic means no identified medical cause. In short, when she’s stressed she gets inflammatory cystitis. Just like women.” (p.113)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“This book is exasperating, wonderful, radical and poetic. It asks all the big questions: what’s the meaning of life; why the plumber didn’t come; is analysis worthwhile (à la Paul Simon!); how to say, on your first date, that you need to use the toilet; what purpose has art or intelligence; how to treat a cat with cystitis…and much more besides. In exploring what makes life bearable and meaningful, Burberry suggests, and I wholeheartedly agree, that it is music, art, love, beauty, good food and above all, reaching out to others, that makes the world bearable and wonderful. I would add also, books and what we, in Ireland, call ‘the craic’—or just fun.”
“Two characters narrate the story and Burberry captures equally well the voices of Renée, a fifty-four-year-old woman and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl. Renée is the Concierge in an exclusive, Parisien apartment building whose residents are ‘la-di-da lawyers, anorexic blondes, politicians, food critics and diplomats.’ She is, in fact, no ordinary Concierge, but a highly cultured woman of deep learning; an autodidact who has successfully hidden her true identity for twenty-seven years. Paloma is the super intelligent child of a Government Minister living on the fifth floor. These two people come to realize that they are kindred spirits. Both are highly perceptive, hyper-sensitive people with a jaundiced view of the world. Neither suffers fools gladly, and their antennae are always on the alert for shallowness, snobbery or pretentiousness. This is ironic, given that they’re both gifted intellectuals, masquerading as something else.
“Immersing myself in their worlds, I’m inspired to ask the question, ‘Why do people choose to hide their true selves?’ How common is it to show to the world what we think is a more acceptable image? Because prejudice about working women with children still exists, I always felt it necessary when my children were young, never to draw attention in my working life to the fact that I was a mother of three. As a consequence, I secretly struggled, juggling the multi-tasks necessary to run a home and have a career. There have been many times when, en route to a meeting, I’ve stopped off to buy meat or toilet rolls and privately speculated on how many men around the table might also have groceries in their briefcases!
“Do young, intelligent, women still feel compelled to make inane conversations when they’re out socially, believing (rightly or wrongly) that men might find it unattractive for them to discuss, for example, globalization or GM food production? It strikes me that by concealing our true selves, we miss opportunities to grow or to meet like-minded individuals. Being different, however, can be a lonely existence.
“In Paloma, however, I’m reminded, that whenever I’m asked if I’d like to live my life over again, my answer is always an emphatic ‘no’—I couldn’t bear reliving those emotive teenage years when we love too much and hate too much.”
“You can tell the narrator doesn’t like poodles:
“[Above all] they have venomous little black eyes set deep in their insignificant eye-sockets. Poodles are ugly and stupid, submissive and boastful. They are poodles, after all.” (p.42)
“On the other hand, the book abounds with intelligent cats with literary names such as Kitty and Levin and Leo (from Tolstoy) and Dongo (from Stendhal).
“I love this writer: anyone who can conduct a discourse on Husserl’s theory of phenomenology on one page and on the next, have an hilarious discussion with someone about a cat with cystitis, is a rare talent. A woman after my own heart, she is scathing on the abuse of grammar and punctuation and delights in the misappropriation of the apostrophe on the part of one of the wealthy inhabitants who looks down her nose at ‘lesser beings.’ (p.106)”
“Barbery raises serious and uncomfortable issues of ageism and class:
“You know you have reached the very bottom of the social food chain when you detect in a rich person’s voice that he is merely addressing himself and that, although the words he is uttering may be, technically, destined for you, he does not even begin to imagine that you might be capable of understanding them.” (p.32)
“This isn’t entirely fair, since it’s an attitude not necessarily confined to class. I have detected similar attitudes in senior managers towards subordinates; in high academics towards fresher students; in older, ‘wiser’, individuals towards the very young.
“This story is saturated in the concept of class, which looms surprisingly large in French society. How relevant, however, is the concept in a modern lib-dem society? They say that the U.S.A. is a classless society. I wonder about that. Certainly, from this side of the Atlantic there appears a strong (could it be called ideological or ‘class’?) divide between supporters of Republicans and Democrats. Yes, we know there are very many poor and unemployed people who vote Republican, but in general, could it be said that poorer people are more likely to support greater government engagement and increased taxes?”
“How is it that after all those years of living in the same building, only two of the residents ‘see’ past her façade to realize that there is more to Madame la Concièrge than meets the eye? Many of us make hasty, superficial assumptions about people we meet casually and we tend to feel more comfortable around people who reflect our own outlook on life. Living typically in residential areas determined by our incomes and educated with children from similar backgrounds and value systems, we tend to socialize with like-minded people. As a consequence, we have little opportunity to meet (or do we perhaps avoid?) people who do not share our values and outlooks on life. It becomes problematic when we’re so insulated in our views, that we neither hear nor consider alternative perspectives. It becomes downright dangerous when it leads to intolerance.
“I’ve been doing some equality and diversity training with companies lately. This is a big issue for us in Ireland, where globalization and mobility of labour are attracting big companies like Google, Microsoft, Linked-In, etc. to locate here. Our population is becoming more diverse and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it’s not enough to have legislation to protect minorities—it’s also important, actually, to respect and celebrate difference, not just because it is right to do so, but because diversity makes life and work more interesting. There are, of course, also strong business reasons for so doing. Very interesting times.”
“On a positive note: the two narrators come to understand that despite living in disparate worlds, we are all fundamentally similar, sharing the same fears and vulnerabilities.
“The idea of trying something on in front of an anorexic virgin—something which, on me, will look like a sack of potatoes—has always deterred me from going into boutiques.” (p.177)
“I laughed out loud at the familiarity of this anxiety. It’s not only women, though, who will identify with it: most men I know (including my twenty-year-old son) buy their clothes without bothering to first try them on! This can’t always be because they’re in such a terrific hurry, can it?”
“Wonderful and all as she is, Renée herself might be guilty of a kind of inverted snobbery: whilst hiding her true self from those she lives amongst, she sneers inwardly at their shortcomings. When she drops her guard and allows someone to see a little of her true persona, she gets the opportunity to experience a rich human relationship; but is it all too late? This book reminds me that we’re all flawed human beings, trying to make our way as best we can. We generally mean well and have a ‘live-and-let-live’ approach to life. Despite our best intentions, however, just like most of the characters in this story, we often get it wrong and offend those we live or work with, albeit unintentionally. Perhaps we could take a lesson from Renée: disregard how others behave towards you and be true to yourself.”
“If you make it past the first three short chapters, this book will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. You will not easily forget it.”