By Muriel Barbery, this novel is the story of two hyper-intelligent individuals living among Paris’ high society: Renée Michel, the concierge of the apartment building, and Paloma Josse, the shockingly perceptive 12-year-old. They seem to embody everything that the privileged elite should be but isn’t; the juxtaposition of their wisdom and class against the frivolous and shallow natures of those around them constantly lashes out at the empty finicking of the bourgeois lifestyles.
At the same time, this tiresome emptiness is contrasted with Japanese aesthetics, which often find beauty in simplicity. The line between nullness and emptiness is a thin but important distinction. Japanese art and culture are a constant source of peace for the two. Surely it is no coincidence that the arrival of the Japanese man is what brings new meaning into their lives.
The book is incredibly dense with wonderful material. Most of the book is structured to have one profound thought per chapter, and this adds up to a huge mass of wisdom and perceptiveness. Most authors, having arrived at one of these insights, would probably attempt to write a book about it, a masterpiece (they hope) which pivots around a truly thought-provoking idea. Barbery, on the other hand, had the audacity to fill the book with these thoughts and reveal one per chapter. It almost feels wasteful, seeing myself briefly appreciate the beauty of one chapter before hurrying off with excitement to see what will come next.
I wish I could comment more on the significance of Tolstoy, but I am grossly ill-versed. Maybe I’ll revisit this after reading Anna Karenina and re-reading The Hedgehog and the Fox.