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The Life of Elves


The Life of Elves

written by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson

It’s rare that fiction in translation crosses the Atlantic with a big splash. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and its sequels) and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels come to mind, but what else? Answer: THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, the surprise 2008 bestseller by Muriel Barbery, a French teacher of philosophy.

In this country, it would be unusual for a high-schooler to be introduced to philosophy. In France, however, it is part of a child’s preparation for “le bac” (baccalauréat), the standard test required in order to go on to university. Thus, it is part of the cultural landscape, and as such it is both the strength and (I think) the weakness of Barbery’s new novel, THE LIFE OF ELVES.

THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, alternately narrated by a precocious and suicidal 12-year-old Parisian girl and the apparently uninteresting concierge of the building in which she lives, existed very much in the here-and-now. Certainly, philosophical and literary elements came into play, but there were also two memorable characters. Although THE LIFE OF ELVES has a 12-year-old protagonist as well --- actually, two of them --- there the resemblance ends. Part fairy tale, part ecological allegory, it is a hybrid that may or may not appeal to the earlier novel’s many fans.

The two girlish heroes begin life as foundlings, in France and Italy respectively. Maria is adopted by peasants on a farm in Burgundy, Clara by an old priest and his housekeeper in a remote village in Abruzzo (she later lives in Rome). It soon becomes apparent that each has extraordinary talents --- eventually, we learn that both have elfin blood --- Maria in her magical connection to nature, Clara in her extraordinary musical talent (From the Life of Elves is the name of a classical trio by a contemporary Russian composer; a reference to a “Russian sonata” she plays on the piano suggests that this piece inspired the title). The girls prove to be the bridge between the human world and the misty land of the elves, and they are born at a time of crisis, when the enemy is gathering to defeat and corrupt the earth. The book ends with a tremendous battle between good and evil, between “organic wholeness” and the separations that afflict the world. Maria, with Clara’s help and the villagers’, fights back against whirlwinds, floods and black arrows. She wins --- but not without casualties, and only for the time being. The conclusion of THE LIFE OF ELVES is distinctly open-ended.

"[A]lthough I wanted to adore this book as much as I did its predecessor, the cryptic mists and high-concept ruminations of THE LIFE OF ELVES proved too hazy to grab my heart."

Barbery’s lush, vivid language imbues the book with a sense of wonder (kudos to the translator): Snow begins to fall “as if the sky were peeling away into immaculate white strips”; when Clara first hears the notes of a piano, it produces in her “the sensation of a sharpened blade together with a delicious swoon....” The narrative voice has a once-upon- a-time cadence, as if this tale were being told around a fire, with the wind howling outside. Weather, indeed, is almost a character in this book, mimicking the turns and twists of human experience: now perfectly beneficent and balanced, then distorted and out of kilter. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine this as a comment on climate change.  

Despite its beauties, THE LIFE OF ELVES is, I’m afraid, more a philosophical fable than a compelling piece of fiction, much too abstract to inspire emotional involvement. What we need are ordinary people to serve as our guides (think of Alice falling into Wonderland, Dorothy carried to Oz, Harry taking the train to Hogwarts), protagonists whose fear and awe at their adventures in an alternate dimension conjure our own sense of discovery and delight. Instead, Maria and Clara are and remain mystical symbols of the power for good. They show flashes of ordinary childishness, but not for long: They are special, and they know it.

Barbery comes closer to characters we can relate to when she describes the peasants who dwell in the Burgundian village where Maria is raised. These have the potential to be endearing, especially the four old women who bring her up. There’s a stirring passage where 94-year-old Angèle, girded in “three bodices and seven skirts and petticoats,” defends Maria against a sudden storm of evil. In another, the herbalist, Eugénie, 86, whose son died in World War I, saves a life with garlic and thyme and, through Maria, finds a link between healing and the making of peace. There is also the village priest, a man “who had devoted his life to Jesus and to plants.” Suddenly he moves beyond the empty litanies he’s been taught and realizes that “there is no other Lord but the benevolence of the land.”

But these evocative thumbnail sketches are not enough. They generate dramatic episodes, then are allowed to fade away. There’s no continuity.

And if only the elves themselves were less vague! Although in one passage we get a humorous, somewhat world-weary hint of what their life is like (“Poetry, calligraphy, walks in the woods, stone gardens, fine pottery, music. We celebrate twilight, and mists. We drink tea. Rivers of tea”), the picture remains undeveloped. It seems that while the elves’ existence is glorious but static, humans, in contrast, have the power, through the stories they tell --- Christianity being one such story --- to “play with reality.” I suppose this is Barbery’s rather meta way of suggesting that fiction, the very act of imagining a different world, can help to change this one.

The change she imagines is all too relevant to the environmental and human crises that now plague the earth. THE LIFE OF ELVES offers a glimpse of a world in which nature is fused with faith on the one hand, art on the other; where there are no hierarchies of wealth or power; where people and countries do not foster the walls and divisions that lead to war but rather cultivate a oneness with the land and each another.

The trouble is, Barbery’s vision never really comes alive. One early review compares her book to Tolkien, Rowling and Milton. But Rowling and Tolkien’s novels are cracking good stories peopled with full-bodied characters, while “Paradise Lost” is an epic poem, a horse of a very different literary color. So, although I wanted to adore this book as much as I did its predecessor, the cryptic mists and high-concept ruminations of THE LIFE OF ELVES proved too hazy to grab my heart.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on February 19, 2016

The Life of Elves
written by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson

  • Publication Date: February 9, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions
  • ISBN-10: 1609453158
  • ISBN-13: 9781609453152