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A Very Human Document

March 10, 2011 By:
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At Home With André and Simone Weil. For the uninitiated, the title could lull you into believing that this is a sweet memoir about daily life in a bourgeois family in France. But even those who recognize the featured names -- monikers attached to two of the most fearsome French intellectuals of the 20th century -- might think that here they'll find heartening anecdotes that would make the central subjects -- a brother and sister, who, though three years apart, were more like twins in the ferociousness of their intellects -- more human than their legacies have left them.

Yes, At Home With André and Simone Weil (pronounced "vey") makes them human all right -- all too human.

Simone Weil looks like a charming young woman on the cover photo that graces At Home, though she never seemed to smile in her adult portraits; she offered instead an enigmatic curl of the lips. The point appeared to be that smiling might deny the fact that somewhere in the world people suffered, and that enjoying yourself even modestly would undermine all sense of principle.

Simone died in 1943 at age 32 after having refused food, simulating, some said, the amount given to inmates in Nazi camps (others spoke of long-term problems with anorexia). One of the websites devoted to her legacy states that despite her being born to Jewish parents, she became a Christian and renowned mystic, as well as "an anarchist soldier, factory worker, labor organizer, school teacher, resistance fighter and philosopher."

André Weil, Simone's older brother, looks a bit perturbed on the cover photo, an expression befitting a soon-to-be renowned mathematician -- the flow of whose thoughts, even then, may have been disrupted by picture- taking. Unless you read books about the history of mathematics in the 20th century -- for he was involved in many projects and controversies -- you might not recognize his name. He was distinctly the quieter of the siblings.

A 'Saint's Tibia'

Sylvie Weil, the author of these memoirs, is André's child and Simone's niece, and it is her relationship with these indisputable giants that is the premise of her new book. Sylvie might be forgiven for not making quite the splash her relatives did in the world, but according to the bio supplied by her publisher, Northwestern University Press, she is no slouch in the accomplishment department.

Sylvie earned her degrees in classics and French literature at the Sorbonne. She's been a professor of French literature at Hunter College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has also taught at Barnard and Bennington colleges. She's the author of several award-winning works of fiction for adults and young readers, two of which have appeared here: My Guardian in 2004 and Elvina's Mirror in 2009.

Now comes At Home With André and Simone Weil, smoothly translated by Benjamin Ivry, which is unlike any family memoir I've read recently. Maybe it's just that this one has a distinctly continental flavor. It does not tell a cheery story, but it does not stoop, like many recent such tales, to bile and vituperation. In fact, it is distinguished by a style that's always startling, and propelled by a wit that is, at times, alarming -- but in the best sense of the word, if that's possible.

The book begins with this admission: "On more than one occasion, I have renounced Simone. I was ashamed of my affiliation with her, as if it were a defect. Some people may find that shocking, or simply foolish, but that's the way it is." Having a revered mystic in the family, whom many people say you resemble, is clearly a tremendous burden for anyone to shoulder.

An early chapter, titled "The Saint's Tibia," states "I grew up in Simone's shadow. Her myopic eyes, like my own, smiled at me through eyeglasses on photos which encircled my childhood and adolescence. Often I rediscovered her at unsuspected moments, in a bookstore window, on a book cover, sometimes even on posters. Her jet-black hair, like mine, abundant like mine, was wavy like mine.

"How could I avoid defining myself in relation to her?"

But what of life with André?

In a chapter titled "Where to Find the Sugar Bowl," we're told: "My mother endlessly reminds us, 'You are the daughters of a genius.' Often she adds that we are very fortunate.

"Being a genius, my father obviously cannot remember where to find the sugar bowl, the silverware, or the coffeepot." Mother and daughters had to do it.

It's not been an easy life Sylvie Weil's been strapped with, but it has given her the occasion to write a singular memoir touched with high comedy and genuine pathos -- a very human document about some "otherworldly" creatures.

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