MARCH 30, 2016
IN A DYSTOPIC FUTURE, the fantastic past, or some altered version of reality, a precocious girl begins to realize that she possesses uncanny powers. Older or otherworldly protectors train her in their use, and she practices until her tremendous talents ensure victory in a culminating battle against a demonic enemy. Readers devour and Hollywood eagerly adapts this recently standardized plot of blockbuster supernatural fiction — think Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones. Muriel Barbery’s The Life of Elves elaborates this model: it gives us not one but two preteen prodigies, and their clairvoyant connection defeats a deadly assault and alters the path of history. A unicorn even appears.
But there’s more to The Life of Elves than mere Hollywood fodder, for which abysmal writing too often mars bestsellers aimed at teens. This novel glows with finely crafted prose. Its luminous landscapes — environmental and psychological — lift it to the realm of literary fiction and the genre of magical realism. The novelty of its richly imagined world, which blends European cultural and natural history with human-animal hybrids, elves, and supernatural forces, charms and delights. Its tasteful, bourgeois elves secretly paint the masterpieces of Dutch realism, compose sublime piano music, and hold entertaining parties, at which they drink Moscato and tell stories long into the night. Older adults who enjoy what a previous generation understood to be young adult fiction can breathe easy in this refined atmosphere, where exquisite writing and elliptical Eurocentric cultural references legitimate the talking horses and mind-melds.
These pedigreed unicorns leap from the pen of the same author who wrote the surprise global success of 2008, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. That novel featured memorable alternating narrators: Renée, the philosophizing concierge of a ritzy Paris apartment building, and Paloma, the precocious, suicidal preteen and acute social critic who resides there. Renée discoursed on The German Ideology, phenomenology, and the films of Yasujiro Ozu while hiding her intelligence and taste from the building’s self-obsessed, thoughtless denizens. That novel’s early chapters criticized class-based stereotypes, but it flowered into an ode to sensuous experiences of consumption: the expensive sashimi Renée samples on a date with the new, open-minded resident Kakuro, the graceful movement of a Maori rugby player whom Paloma contemplates on television. Barbery’s first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, also made aesthetic experience the meaning of life: its central character, the food critic Pierre Arthens, seeks to taste a forgotten marvelous flavor before he dies. In The Life of Elves, gastronomic details are again the focus: “One evening when talking of the hunt, the father made a remark that caused Maria to raise her eyebrows. They were supping on bacon and beets cooked in ash, garnished with a spoonful of cream laced with coarse salt.” Foodies may find themselves drooling on their Kindles. Moreover, Barbery’s abiding preoccupation with cuisine is no mere grace note: aesthetically pleasing food heals, fuels, and helps to drive the supernatural plot.
This common theme notwithstanding, the texture of The Life of Elves differs drastically from Barbery’s earlier novels. It follows two pre-adolescent girls, Maria and Clara, who grow up in rustic villages in Burgundy and Abruzzo respectively, in an unspecified historical period. Shuttling between them, the novel gradually develops their clairvoyant connection, and its role in preparing for the coming war — a contest between elves who wish to maintain their alliance with humans and elves seeking to destroy humans. The prose weaves its enchantments on the threshold between nature and culture. At dawn, hunters find the Burgundian village streets densely packed with hares, who lead them into the woods and disperse. An old woman healer recalls her childhood initiation into her art by a mystical mint leaf whose fragrant sap she feels flowing in her own blood. Barbery’s fascination with the sensuous detail now serves a fantastic plot in which quotidian aesthetics become powerful forces. One night when Maria rearranges three cloves of garlic and a water glass left on the farmhouse kitchen table, she creates “a living painting […] for the eye that pays tribute to the divine.” The novel’s moments of brilliance lie in its playful transmutations of life into art and back again.
In this sensuous, premodern world, the peasants strike a balance with the land, taking no more of its resources than they can use. By contrast, the novel hints that other, more rapacious humans are altering the climate, which in turn threatens the elves’ mists. This nod toward sustainability remains an allegorical touch. In the novel’s pleasantly naïve magical realist realm, nature is also a densely connected plenitude: carpets of violets appear overnight, and humans are descended from hares and boars. Clara’s virtuoso piano-playing alters distant realities. Since Barbery elevates fine aesthetic appreciation to the level of magic, the human-allied elves defeat the cannons of war with music, tea, dreams, and, above all, stories. I have not really spoiled the novel by revealing that outcome — the pleasure in The Life of Elves is not to be found in the slow-moving plot, but in the fantasy of narrative’s exquisite and immeasurable power. “The universe is a gigantic story,” says an elf, “And everyone has their own story, radiating somewhere in the firmament of fictions and leading somewhere into the sky of prophecies and dreams.” The fine telling of a story, more than subsistence hunting and agriculture, ensures this world’s natural balance.
The Life of Elves itself springs to life in lighthearted or poignant moments that most fully realize the piquancy of its title. The amiable relationship between Clara and her protector, the drunken elf Petrus, recalls Paloma’s much-needed friendship with Kakuru in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In an inspired moment, Maria and her great-great aunt Eugénie heal a villager by applying garlic, thyme, and magic. In such moments, Barbery suggestively invests her devotion to food and wine with humor and compelling interest. When Petrus reveals his elfin identity to Clara, she reacts with surprise: “‘Elves?’ she echoed, stunned. ‘There are alcoholic elves?’ He looked hurt. ‘I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just intolerant of alcohol. As are we all, anyway. Must I, for all that, deprive myself of something that is good?’” Such sprinklings of dialogue flavor the book’s long, descriptive meal.
Often, however, The Life of Elves marches solemnly toward the armed conflict in which it culminates, smothering the appealing elfin-human connections under portentousness. Like Paloma in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Maria and Clara are sad; unlike her, their melancholy, clairvoyant capabilities and hallowed destinies thin out their characters. Unlike the distinctive voice of Paloma, the unnamed, quasi-omniscient narrator of The Life of Elves has painterly powers of description, but no distinguishing personal characteristics or specific stakes in the action. A guide to the characters appears at the book’s front, and I had to use it frequently, not because they are so many, but because they are forgettable ciphers. A clunky set of interludes present transcripts of an “inner elfin council” taking place in a parallel world, foreshadowing the plot points. These apparatuses secure the literariness and magical realist status of The Life of Elves, but they also occasionally clutter the narrative in contrast to the more clearly drawn worlds of its generic, blockbuster kin.
Though The Life of Elves seems less commercial and more experimental than The Elegance of the Hedgehog, its ideas also hold less interest and lack conviction. Hedgehog often felt tensed between literature and philosophy. Renée’s lectures on Proust and the Japanese art of tea served the character and the plot, but also staged themselves as argumentative set pieces; they seemed to be scenes translated from Barbery’s own career as a philosophy professor, answering non-literary first questions such as “how should one live?” The Life of Elves offers more austere, less stimulating pleasures. Its direct espousals, of the power of love and story-telling, taste bland, and its simplistic politics begin to grate. Barbery’s elliptical prose opens controversial topics, such as the status of feminism, the aestheticization of war, sustainability, and the persistence of religious faith in a secular world, but does not let them breathe.
What to make, for example, of Barbery’s impromptu serving of an apparently essentialist mode of feminism, a school of thought of an old vintage? Essentialist feminism proposed that women possessed immutable inner qualities, linked to their biological difference. Whereas patriarchal, misogynist discourses had categorized women as less than men on its basis, feminism could reappropriate women’s physical difference to celebrate their special power. Queer theory and other modes of social constructivism, which showed how language and culture shaped perceptions of biological difference, effectively displaced essentialism as the basis of feminist politics in the 1990s. But The Life of Elves resurrects such ideas, for example, when the narrative turns to Maria’s mother, Rose — a figure who, near the narrative’s close, suddenly forges a psychic connection with her adopted daughter. Here, the unnamed narrator informs us that
Certain women possess a grace given them by virtue of an increase in the female essence — as the result of an echo effect which, by making them simultaneously singular and plural, allows them to be manifest both in themselves and in the long lineage of their kin; if Rose was a woman of sky and rivers, it was because the river of those who had come before her flowed inside her, through the magic complicity with her gender.
The retrograde assertion of a female essence disturbingly reproduces the patriarchal discourses that had long used it to dominate women. Barbery’s feminism thus reveals its hollowness, especially since it places women in a supporting role to a male war:
It was a time for women. The time for women who know what men must find at home before the fight. So they inhabit every inch of space in the home, they embrace every joist, every deepest recess, and they multiply until the home is nothing more than a throbbing breast where one can feel the purest declensions of their sex.
Related to this fetishism of women’s bodies is the problem of aestheticizing war. Because Barbery has made aesthetics the powerful force that the elf-human alliance uses to defeat its enemy, she must describe how it works on the ground. At first, the fighters in Burgundy begin to despair, thinking they will lose and die, but when Clara begins playing the piano in Rome, her exquisite music supernaturally restores their appetite for battle. They “told themselves that their martial quest was esthetic, too, and that their killing would be without mercy but without rage, so that the land might regain its innocent splendor.” Such self-restraint may sound noble, but it echoes fascist aesthetics. Barbery may be borrowing this dispassion from Japanese martial arts; indeed, much of the novel’s watercolor idiom — its appearance as a series of delicate landscape sketches — evokes the precise minimalism of Japanese aesthetics that Barbery lauds in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. However, that transcultural imprimatur does not warm the chill of aesthetically motivated killing. When readers imagine these warriors returning home to their female relatives — that is, to the throbbing breasts — they crystalize the novel’s deeply conservative politics.
Unicorns have recently re-emerged from girls’ culture to become a wider popular meme, a quasi-cynical reference to the rare and wonderful thing that remains a myth. The Life of Elves seems to be the unicorn of fantasy fiction, taking writing and narrative seriously, yet it fails to satisfy. Barbery puts powerful girl protagonists at the center of the story and establishes a supportive connection between them — and then writes rules for their world that foreclose their future. Should we take the feminist fiction we have, or dream of something exquisite and unseen that doesn’t exist?