Prickly Cin­derel­las fail to charm in French satire

So­phie Mas­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN French city folk­lore, the concierge is much more than the care­taker of an apart­ment build­ing. She — it’s usu­ally a she — is the tute­lary spirit of the small vil­lage hud­dling be­hind the street door. She is also a vivid and con­fi­dent char­ac­ter who is sus­pected of know­ing ev­ery bit of gos­sip, from the triv­ial to the juicy ( the French equiv­a­lent of stick­y­beak is concierge).

It’s the first rule of apart­ment life that you get on with the concierge. In my grand­par­ents’ build­ing in Toulouse, the concierge and her hus­band reigned with aplomb from their lodge.

Even my snob­bish grand­mother, who in pri­vate might warn me ( to my Aus­tralian in­credulity) about mix­ing with the concierge’s uni­ver­si­tys­tu­dent son, would never have dared to ex­press any­thing other than syco­phan­tic nice­ness when she was faced with the guardian of the gates. But my grand­fa­ther, iron­i­cally from a wealth­ier back­ground than my grand­mother, loved go­ing down to the lodge to share a glass of brandy and a chat with the concierge’s hus­band, an old war com­rade. It was thanks to his friend­li­ness that the fam­ily was in good odour with the tute­lary spirit, who could oc­ca­sion­ally make life hard for oth­ers.

Yet few of the res­i­dents of 7 Rue Grenelle, the grand Parisian apart­ment build­ing that is the set­ting for Muriel Bar­bery’s novel, seem to ob­serve that rule. Most treat Re­nee Michel, the concierge and main nar­ra­tor, with a dis­dain that in real life would soon see them in trou­ble. Some are civil but in­dif­fer­ent and only one, a young ve­teri­nary stu­dent, shows any real friend­li­ness.

Any self- re­spect­ing concierge would long ago have waged war on th­ese up­per- class up­starts. But Re­nee Michel’s idea of war is to pre­tend to be a car­i­ca­ture of concierg­erie — prickly, tele­vi­sion- watch­ing, un­e­d­u­cated — while se­cretly rev­el­ling in phi­los­o­phy, Rus­sian nov­els and Ja­panese po­etry and cus­toms. Des­per­ately lonely and sul­lenly de­fi­ant, she has so lit­tle self- re­spect that she not only hides her read­ing from the res­i­dents but doesn’t even take re­venge against the fools who pa­tro­n­ise and dis­miss her.

In­stead, she seems con­tent to con­sider her­self su­pe­rior to them and to com­plain about them in her jour­nal. She in­veighs against the con­fit Right and caviar Left but is par­tic­u­larly scathing about the Josses, the fam­ily of a So­cial­ist MP who add hypocrisy to their ar­ro­gance and bad man­ners.

One of the Josses is 12- year- old Paloma, the other nar­ra­tor. Un­be­known to Re­nee, she is a kin­dred spirit who feels con­demned to a ‘‘ goldfish- bowl life’’. She hates her neu­rotic mother, her fran­tic fa­ther, her bitchy older sis­ter. She has no friends at school and de­spises the teach­ers. She is ob­sessed with Ja­panese cul­ture, which bizarrely ap­pears to rep­re­sent to her ( and Re­nee and per­haps the au­thor) the ab­so­lute op­po­site of rigid, caste- rid­den France. She too is des­per­ately lonely and sul­lenly de­fi­ant, and plans to com­mit sui­cide on her 13th birth­day, af­ter first hav­ing set fire to the apart­ment.

But fate has a sur­prise in store for her — and

for Re­nee — in the shape of a new res­i­dent, a Ja­panese Prince Charm­ing named Kakuro Ozu, a wid­ower who makes th­ese two lonely souls blos­som for the first time.

Un­for­tu­nately, by the time I met Mr Ozu, I was heartily sick of Re­nee and Paloma, Paloma es­pe­cially: she is a mon­strous, prig­gish lit­tle mis­an­thrope. But Re­nee too is an­noy­ing, with her com­plaints and her ab­surd cha­rade.

The au­thor re­ally gilds the lily. Re­nee is 54 and the book is set in the present, so she would have been born in the mid- 1950s and been a child in the ’ 60s. Yet the de­tails of her brutish farm child­hood make it sound like some­thing out of the ’ 20s and her best friend, Por­tuguese cleaner Manuela, also sounds out of a time warp. Re­nee’s por­trayal of the French res­i­dents is so sour and that of Mr Ozu so sug­ary sweet it makes me gag. Worse, de­spite some good mo­ments, she doesn’t feel real: more like a col­lec­tion of mus­ings ven­tril­o­quis­ing the au­thor’s opin­ions on the class gulf in French so­ci­ety.

This novel was a best­seller in France. It’s very read­able, some­times funny, and its stri­dent de­nun­ci­a­tion of the French elite ob­vi­ously struck a chord. As did the Cin­derella ro­mance. Iron­i­cally enough, though, it’s only when Re­nee’s ex­te­rior be­comes a chic match for her smart in­te­rior that she can briefly blos­som. Some revo­lu­tion. So­phie Mas­son’s lat­est novel is The Case of the Di­a­mond Shadow.

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