Musing and introspection prompted by crap weather
It will not stop raining. This is the type of rain that hits the pavement with such vehemence, it makes you wonder if the moisture is coming from the sky or the earth. Even a trip to the grocery store in the warmth and comfort of my car is out of the question; braving the white squall on the roadways should be left solely to hot-rodding adrenaline junkies on days like this. I'm just going to hunker down and read.
Luckily, I just started a new book, and I am positively enthralled. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a jewel of philosophy, art, manners, comedy and language. To my sensibilities, a definite page-turner. The setting is an ultra-fancy Parisian apartment building. The main characters are Renee, the apartment's dowdy, underprivileged, yet fiercely intelligent concierge, and Paloma, the 12-year-old daughter of a rich parliamentarian occupying the building's 5th floor. Both Renee and Paloma disguise their intelligence as well as their disdain for so-called high society whose dim preoccupation with class would prevent them from appreciating their formidable talents.
This book was an immense best-seller in Europe and has now been translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Out of curiosity, I read a few of the negative reviews on Amazon. Most complained that the author, Muriel Barbery, is 'too clever for her own good' or that the book is choked with 'pretentious philosophical ramblings'. I definitely agree that this book isn't for everyone. But it is for me. Cleverness makes me giddy. Pretentious philosophical ramblings? Philosophy may be pretentious but, man, is it a huge ego boost when you can grasp it and the ideas don't go sailing over your head. Many of the folks who didn't like this book were turned off by Renee and Paloma's 'reverse snobbery'. What does that mean? Yes, their sarcastic scorn for the privileged elite is prolific, but it is also hilarious! I typically read before I go to bed; the author's sly wit keeps me smirking in my sleep all night long.
Without a doubt, my favorite scene in the book is when the concierge, Renee, reveals her allergy to grammatical errors. One of the building's tenants gives her a note containing a punctuation error and Renee's reaction is:
'I was not prepared for such an underhanded attack. I collapse in shock in the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad. Does this have the same effect on you, when this sort of thing happens?'
YES RENEE! YES IT DOES!
Now don't get me wrong. I am hardly a grammatical expert and I don't claim perfection. An absentminded solecistic transgression is understandable and forgivable. I am sure I commit them all the time. But, as an amateur linguist and one with huge appreciation for the delicate perfection of a well-crafted sentence, sometimes grammatical errors just hurt me. They hurt me in my soul.
I suppose this is more of a spelling error than a grammatical one, but the offense I find most egregious is 'alot'. I shudder just typing it. When I was in 6th grade, my teacher made a detailed and elaborate sign which she hung above the blackboard. In flowery script, it said: 'A lot is two words'. My innocent 6th grade mind thought, hmmm, that is quite profound. Just two words, thoughtful and simple, can have great impact and can deliver powerful meaning. This may be true, but what I mistook for a poetry lesson, my teacher had meant to be a spelling lesson. A lot is two words. Not one word. If I remember correctly, this sign stayed up for a very long time. It made an impact on me.
I'm sure industrious individuals could go back through the archives of this blog and find numerous spelling, grammar and punctuation errors on my part. I know I commit them. And I am fully aware that my hacky and stylistically mediocre writing won't be bringing home any Pulitzers in the near future. To steal a line from someone significantly more hilarious and brilliant than I, my blog entries are 'not all gems'.
But what I lack in aptitude, I believe I make up for in appreciation. Language, even in it's everyday usage, is art. I adore words in all their limitless combinations. Paloma, the 12-year-old protagonist in The Elegance of the Hedgehog explains it far better than I ever could:
'Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that's where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself, "Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious, rich and subtle!" I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you've grasped this, you've grasped the core of any statement. It's magnificent, don't you think? Nouns, verbs...'
YES PALOMA! IT IS MAGNIFICENT!