Oh my. This book has rocketed to the top of my favorites list. Barbery has blown me away with words that reach deeply into my heart, squeeze that organ tightly, wrap it with silk and throw it a delightful party.
The book is told from the perspective of two journal writers, one 54 year old concierge (Madame RenÃ©e Michel) and one incredibly intelligent 12 year old schoolgirl who lives in the building (Paloma Josse).
I have read so many books… And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.
On the nature of reading War and Peace in translation:
I would give anything to be able to read it in Russian. What I have always liked about this passage are the pauses, the balance between war and peace, the ebb and flow of his thoughts, like the tide on the shore carrying the riches of the ocean, in, and out. Was this merely a whim on the part of the translator, embroidering something that might have been very simple in the original – I have been much blamed, both for war, and for peace – thus consigning my maritime ruminations to the chapter of unfounded extravagance, or is this the very essence of a superb text which, even today, still moves me, however I resist, to tears of joy?
In defense of her rage at a misplaced comma in a note from one of the wealthy building tenants:
Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance. Society’s elect, those whom fate has spared from the servitude that is the lot of the poor, must, consequently, shoulder the double burden of worshiping and respecting the splendors of language. Finally, Sabine Pallieres’s misuse of punctuation constitutes an instance of blasphemy that is all the more insidious when one considers that there are marvelous poets born in stinking caravans or high-rise slums who do have for beauty the sacred respect that it is so rightfully owed.
After describing the beautiful scything scene in Anna Karenina:
Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will. This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this – ridiculous journal of an aging concierge- if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know.
Paloma writes about learning to build instead of destroy, from the game “go”:
But just by observing the adults around me I understood very early on that life goes by in no time at all, yet they’re always in such a hurry, so stressed out by deadlines, so eager for now that they needn’t think about tomorrow… But if you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know how to build the present, and when you don’t know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?
Paloma recounts her elevator conversation with Kakuro, where they decide that the concierge is more than she appears:
She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid… Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.