Prickly Cinderellas fail to charm in French satire
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.