Muriel Barbery and the Pursuit of Absolute Beauty
On Tuesday, February 9, a charming and whimsical evening transpired at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon where international bestselling author Muriel Barbery, direct from Paris, delighted us with her eloquence and poise. Interviewer for the event was Eleanor Wachtel, literary commentator and host of CBC’s award-winning show, Writers & Company.
Her first time in Canada, Barbery was in Toronto to discuss her latest novel, the first in a duology. The Life of Elves is a moving and deeply felt homage to nature and art. Set among the beautiful landscapes of Italy and France, it tells the tale of two children whose extraordinary talent brings them into contact with magical worlds and malevolent forces.
Barbery was inspired by the beautiful gardens of Japan, where indoors and the outer world overlap giving the “incredible feeling of grace and absolute art.” Barbery explained that she thinks of these gardens as “barely human and probably they could have been designed by elves.” The elves in her story present “a unity of everything that is alive” but are curious about humans and art, and long for stories; they are “magnifique characters” who seek “absolute beauty” and crave the human world to satisfy their curiosity and desires. However, the elves experience the darker forces within beauty, leaving readers anticipating the second of the series, as The Life of Elves ends amidst the rumblings of war.
Barbery, a little shy to be giving her interview in English, was born in Casa Blanca, Morocco and has lived in France most of her life. She embodies a European flare, with her reminiscences of good wine, bicycle rides in the countryside and regular trips to La Louvre giving some of us Canadians a bit of wanderlust! Both Barbery’s parents were French literature teachers, and though she chose to study philosophy, Barbery said that she began a love affair with French literature much earlier in life:
“I didn’t get a lot of the stories because I was too young but I already could sense the beauty of the language; I think if I loved that much French literature, it’s not for the stories, it’s not for the narrative but it’s for the language which is the most beautiful language in the world. I am deeply in love with its musicality, with its richness, the fact that it’s an old language… a thickness of emotions… I am not very objective as you can see.”
Barbery’s love of language, her philosophical background and her fondness for Japan and art are also evident in her first and second novels, Gourmet Rhapsody and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, where class and culture go head to head under the guise of poetic prose. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been wildly successful selling more than two million copies worldwide, with translations into more than 20 languages.
Check back to watch the full interview with Muriel Barbery and Elenor Wachtel on the Toronto Public Library’s YouTube channel and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #AppelSalon.