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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Home in the Snow

By late afternoon, after breakfast in bed, after hours of radio, after outdoor exercise and dog play, and after a convivial visit from the snowplow—well, not really a plow but a tractor with snow-blower, operated by friend Gerald Lee—that involved lots of Up North talk of drifting snow, steep driveways, generators, old-time wells, etc.—after all that, and with a hearty two-bean soup simmering on the stove, David and I sat down at last to our books. Before I lose myself again in the story of Renée, Paloma and the new tenant, I want to quote here a long passage from earlier in the novel, as homage to the Leelanau Children’s Choir and Youth Ensemble, whose annual concert I missed this year when migraine dragged me down.

This is Paloma, lonely, brilliant 12-year-old, writing in her “Journal of the Movement of the World” about a choir concert at her own public school in Paris. Note that our young narrator has a low opinion of her fellow students and of the value of life in general. Even so, she cannot resist:

Every time, it’s a miracle. Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and age, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck—it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion. Even the singers’ faces are transformed: it’s no longer Achille Grand-Fernet that I’m looking at (he is a very fine tenor) or Déborah Lameur or Ségolène Rachet or Charles Saint-Sauveur. I see human beings, surrendering to music.

Every time, it’s the same thing, I feel like crying, my throat goes all tight and I do the best I can to control myself but sometimes it gets close: I can hardly keep myself from sobbing. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone singing together, this marvelous sharing, I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of the sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.

When the music stops, everyone applauds, their faces lit up, the choir radiant, it is so beautiful.

In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song.

- Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2006)

It is impossible not to feel for Paloma in her existential angst, just as it is impossible not to feel the intellectual loneliness of Renée, the concierge. At the point I have now reached I the book, these two characters and Monsieur Ozu, three people fated to be true friends, are finally coming together. Will they be sufficiently happy in the sympathetic communion we know they will find together to turn a kinder eye on the world of lesser mortals? That would be a true forward movement of the world.

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