The Great Work of Making Meaning


August 18, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

Excerpt from The Elegance of the Hedgehog
(Author Muriel Barbery’s eagerly awaited follow-up, Gourmet Rhapsody, due in stores next week)

I open the door.

Monsieur Ozu is standing there.

“Dear lady,” he says, “I am glad that you were not displeased with my little gift.”

In shock, I cannot understand a word.

“Yes, I was,” I reply, aware that I am sweating like an ox. “Uh, uh, no.” I am pathetically slow to correct my stumbling reply. “Well, thank you, thank you very much indeed.”

He gives me a kindly smile.

“Madame Michel, I haven’t come here so that you can thank me.”

“No?” I say, adding my own brilliant rendition of “let your words die upon your lips,” the art of which I share with Phaedra, Bérénice, and poor Dido.

“I have come to ask you to have dinner with me tomorrow evening,” he says. “That way we shall have the opportunity to talk about our shared interests.”

“Euh…” A relatively brief reply.

“A neighborly dinner, a very simple affair.”

“Between neighbors? But I’m the concierge,” I plead, although whatever may be inside my head is in a state of utter confusion.

“It is possible to be both at once,” he replies.

Holy Mary Mother of God, what am I to do?

There is always the easy way out, although I am loath to use it. I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God—all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease. Thus, as I have neither future nor progeny nor pixels to deaden the cosmic awareness of absurdity, and in the certainty of the end and the anticipation of the void, I believe I can affirm that I have not chosen the easy path.

And yet I am quite tempted.

No thank you, I’m already busy, would be the most appropriate route.

There are several polite variations.

That’s very kind of you but I have a schedule as full as a minister’s (hardly credible).

What a pity, I’m leaving for Megève tomorrow (pure fantasy).

I am sorry, I’ve got family coming round (blatant lie).

My cat is ailing, I can’t leave him alone (sentimental).

I’m sick, I’d better keep to my room (shameless).

Ultimately, I steel myself to say: thank you but I have people coming over this week, when suddenly the serene affability with which Monsieur Ozu stands before me opens a meteoric breach in time.