Muriel Barbery on absolute beauty, elves and the innocent wisdom of children
French author Muriel Barbery appeared on the international literary stage 10 years ago when her second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, became a sleeper hit, topping the French bestseller lists for 30 weeks and selling over 6 million copies worldwide in over 30 languages. Barbery was stunned by the success of the book, and her profits allowed her to quit her teaching job and spend five years abroad in Kyoto and Amsterdam. Now she's back in France, living in the countryside near where she grew up.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a charming, gently satirical novel told by two philosophically inclined narrators. Barbery's new novel, The Life of Elves, is quite different. It's the first of a projected two novels revolving around two extraordinary girls — one in France and the other in Italy — who have special powers. It's not exactly a fairy tale, but it is a fantasy.
Muriel Barbery spoke to Eleanor Wachtel earlier this month, on stage at the Bluma Appel Salon of the Toronto Reference Library.
ON JAPANESE GARDENS AND ABSOLUTE BEAUTY
I lived for two years in Japan, in Kyoto, which for me is probably the most marvellous city on Earth. I had a chance to see the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. The gardens in Japan are a shock, the first time you see them — everything is so absolutely perfect, and at the same time so absolutely human. There is such an incredible feeling of grace. The symbolism of flowers and trees is everywhere — it's an amazing reservoir of fictions, and fictions are my whole life. I told a friend one time, trying to explain to him why I was so moved by these Japanese gardens, that they were barely human and they could have been designed by elves. The idea came from that — I realized that wasn't such a bad idea, and that maybe I could add in some elfin characters in a future book — I had nothing in mind at the time — because they embody this longing for absolute beauty.
ON IMAGINING A NEW BREED OF ELVES
It happened in quite a strange way. When I first thought about the elves, I couldn't see what they looked like, just what their world would look like, which was very close to what I had experienced in Japan. I had no precise idea of what they would look like, but then, writing the novel and getting deeper into the story, it became very obvious that they would not be the elves of Tolkein, with their pointy ears — they would really represent a sort of unity of all that is alive, and respect between all living beings. So they are a bit weird, I have to admit! They don't match the usual fantasy script, but I'm quite happy with that.
ON WRITING THROUGH THE EYES OF A GIRL
The first question that a journalist asked me after the novel was released in France was, "Why have you again written about girls of 12?" And I hadn't realized that I did that, because for me, The Elegance of the Hedgehog was in the past — it was a completely different adventure. So I had to think about it. I think we're all nostalgic for those years, when we were still innocent and capable of enchantment. I try to maintain that feeling with characters of that age in my novels, though I can give them more adult thoughts. This is the wonderful thing about novels with children or young teenagers — they can represent the innocence that we have lost, and at the same time we can give them a voice that we have built with maturity.
Muriel Barbery's comments have been edited and condensed.
Music to close the interview: 'Reverie' composed by Claude Debussy, performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet from the album Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 3.