Chapter 2: The Miracles of Art
My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have
been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particulier
with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all
of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short,
ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early
mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to
college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with
my cat, a big lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact
that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to
take part in the social doings of our respective kindred species. Because I am
rarely friendly though always polite I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has
collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the
multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion
according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. And since
it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so has it
been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament
that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep
all day on cushions that have been covered with crocheted cases.
Similarly, it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup, or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie the State Councilor on the first floor intervened, (an intervention he described to his wife as being "courteous but firm," whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance.
That was twenty-seven years ago. Since then, I have gone every day to the butcher's to buy a slice of ham or some calf's liver, which I slip into my net bag between my packet of noodles and my bunch of carrots. I then obligingly display these pauper's victuals now much improved by the noteworthy fact that they do not smell because I am a pauper in a house full of rich people and this display nourishes both the consensual cliché and my cat Leo, who has become rather large by virtue of these meals that should have been mine, and who stuffs himself liberally and noisily with macaroni and butter, and pork from the delicatessen, while I am free without any olfactory disturbances or anyone suspecting a thing to indulge my own culinary proclivities.
The issue of the television is trickier. In my late husband's day, I did go along with it, for the constancy of his viewing spared me the chore of watching. From the hallway of the building you could hear the sound of the thing, and that sufficed to perpetuate the charade of social hierarchy, but once Lucien had passed away I had to think hard to find a way to keep up appearances. Alive, he freed me from this iniquitous obligation; dead, he has deprived me of his lack of culture, the indispensable bulwark against other people's suspicions.
I found a solution thanks to a non-buzzer.
A chime linked to an infrared mechanism now alerts me to the comings and goings in the hallway, which has eliminated the need for anyone to buzz to notify me of their presence if I happen to be out of earshot. For on such occasions I am actually in the back room, where I spend most of my hours of leisure and where, sheltered from the noise and smells that my condition imposes, I can live as I please, without being deprived of the information vital to any sentry: who is coming in, who is going out, with whom, and at what time.
Excerpted from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
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