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Muriel Barbery Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Muriel Barbery
Photo: Hélie Gallimard

Muriel Barbery

How to pronounce Muriel Barbery: Muri-EL

An interview with Muriel Barbery

Two interviews with Muriel Barbery about her second novel (but first to be published in the USA), The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Before becoming a literary sensation in 2007, Barbery had published Une gourmandise (to be published in 2009 by Europa Editions), a novel that was awarded the Bacchus-Bsn Prize. But then “He” arrived in all his reserved and entertaining elegance, the Hedgehog. In other words, then came that jewel of a book that swept aside every other bestseller in France, reaching sales of over a million copies thanks to its readers' word-of-mouth publicity and its having been awarded an array of prizes. The author of this masterpiece, Muriel Barbery, is thirty-nine years old, currently resident in Japan.

What sensations does being the publishing sensation of the year provoke?

Surprise, incredulity and joy! When the book was first published in France, in September 2006, I thought that nobody would read it and I was readying myself for some other pursuit, in addition to teaching. The fact that the book corresponded to the tastes of readers, and that it has crossed the borders into other countries, surprises me. I still cannot completely explain to myself what happened. I am, also, incredibly happy about this unexpected fate. This success has allowed me to realize some of my dreams, to live in Japan and to be able to write full-time.


Why did you decide to set your book at a street address in Paris, Rue de Grenelle to be precise, where in real life there is a Prada store?

I did so because that street is located in one of the chicest neighborhoods of Pairs. Only after the book was out, did I head down there for the first time and I discover the boutique. The building described in my book, however, is pure invention, and even the street bears no connotation and is not terribly important.


Is Renée an echo in some way of Simenon's characters?

As far as I know this is the first time that anyone has made this comparison. I am honored. But I don't believe I was thinking of Simenon, of whom, I'm embarrassed to admit, I read little during the writing of my novel.


Is it true that there will be a film adaptation of your book? Did you participate in the screenplay, and what are your impressions of it?

Yes, there's going to be a film. They begin filming next fall. I limited myself to a few comments on the screenplay, nothing more.  Book and film represent two very different adventures and I'm letting the young director, Mona Achache, work in peace.


Did you include philosophical references in the book to draw the reader in?

I have to make a confession: I never think of the reader as I write. Writing is an intimate, almost secret, activity. I only follow with my pen my own sensations and desires. This is why the experience of publication is so strange and complicated. I am very happy to be read, but at the same time, the knowledge that I'm being read sometimes even annoys me.


Are Renée's passions your own?

Largely, yes, though fictional characters also allow their creators to distance themselves. My characters are both far and near. That said, Ozu's passion for cinema, the love for Flemish still lives, the search for beauty, a peevishness for any form of academic thought, and a love for Russian authors are all my own passions.




 

An Interview with Muriel Barbery by Laura Lamanda from La Repubblica (Italy) August 25, 2007

A posh building in rue de Grenelle (Paris), its days recounted from two points of view, one belonging to a cultured concierge, the other to a little rich girl with suicidal tendencies. Add some caustic humor, philosophical discourses, and an oversize adoration of Japanese culture and you have the ingredients of a novel that plays merrily with stereotypes, quotes Proust, Eminem, and Husserl, and has surprised everyone by remaining at the top of the French bestseller lists for months.

You have portrayed two rather unusual characters. Young Paloma is disarming; she remains implacable before the hypocrisies of her "caviar left" family; but Renée, secretly refined concierge, is perhaps the more singular if two.

I was inspired by the idea of a reserved, cultured concierge who turned stereotypes on their head and at the same time created a compelling comic effect. With her keen perspective on things, this character then opened the door on a kind of social criticism. I wasn't interested in writing a fairytale about a kind concierge and an adorable child. I wanted to confront themes that were tragic, or absurd, real, while maintaining a light touch. I wanted to explore the natures of two people who were both lonely and distant and who end up finding one another.


What really unites them?

Both ask themselves where beauty lies. The young girl is convinced that it lies hidden in fragile, fleeting things. She searches for it in movement, which is elusive by definition. And she finds it. Perhaps even during a rugby match, in the hypnotic movements of a Maori rugby player.


Your concierge, on the other hand, is an expert on Tolstoy, but also on philosophy. And even the teenaged Paloma, in her own way, expresses a propensity for abstract speculation.

I followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy. I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn't work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one's life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That's where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.


In this novel, erudite citations are side by side with references to comic books or the movies, and not just art house movies but commercial blockbusters.

Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment. Why deny oneself these things? I am not afraid of eclecticism.


Both interviews are reproduced by permission of the publisher, Europa Editions.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Muriel Barbery at BookBrowse
One Hour of Fervor jacket The Life of Elves jacket Gourmet Rhapsody jacket The Elegance of the Hedgehog jacket
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Read-Alikes

All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Muriel Barbery but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Niccolò Ammaniti

    Niccolò Ammaniti

    Niccolò Ammaniti was born in Rome in 1966. He is the author of three novels, as well as a collection of short stories. At thirty-four, he was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Viareggio-Repaci prize for I'm Not... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog

    Try:
    I'm Not Scared
    by Niccolò Ammaniti

  • Chloe Aridjis

    Chloe Aridjis

    Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican–American writer who was born in New York and grew up in the Netherlands and Mexico. After completing her Ph.D. at the University of Oxford in nineteenth–century French poetry and magic ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog

    Try:
    Asunder
    by Chloe Aridjis

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