Review of “At Home With Andre ad Simone Weil”
On Wikipedia a Simone Weil biographer writes that she was "a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range." The entry also says, “Her only sibling was André Weil, who would go on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.”
Sylvie Weil’s At Home With Andre and Simone Weil is a wry, candid, and sometimes painful deconstruction of what it is like to grow up as the offspring of famous forebears, the crucible of comparisons borne by such children. The prose is taut, with nary a perfunctory word in it, with vivid, at times humorous, scenarios, and punctuated with lyrical passages that occasionally lift the prose into the poetic.
A well-known literary figure in her native France, Sylvie Weil has won awards for her collections of short stories (the George Sand Literary Prize) and historical fiction for young adults (the Prix Sorcieres). At Home With Andre and Simone is her first book for adult readers to be translated into English.
And so it is at first perplexing to find that the weight of her aunt’s and father’s fame sits heavily on the shoulders of this talented writer. She has seemed to overcome the “also ran” status, the double stigma of “daughter of” and “niece of” by her own accolades. However, reading Weil’s memoir one comes to appreciate this was no easy feat. A lesser spirited being might have succumbed to depression or laziness, living off the double-barreled fame of the family name.
In the chapter titled “A Normal Little Girl”, describing a scene in which she is enjoying a piece of cake at a girlhood friend’s house, while the friend’s mother confesses her admiration for the long-ago dead aunt, a ‘true ascetic’, (noting “inevitably” how much the child resembles her): “…but all the while the blood of a quasi-saint flows in my veins…I feel guilty of betrayal without knowing exactly whom I am betraying. I sense that I am a usurper…At twelve, my dream instead would be to look like Gina Lollabrigida.”
Knowing the mythologies she would be up against, the idols she would have to break, writing this memoir was a courageous act. For this is a blunt and honest telling. Yet it is not all that different from many families’ stories with its mix of squabbles, secrets, regrets, and fond memories. But despite the stew of feelings that seems to be a universal mark of familial relationships, it is written with an overarching affection, imbued with a kind of wonderment. For instance: “Conversations in the odd language of mathematics structured the space inside which I breathed and dreamed, as much as the rustling patter of Andre’s typewriter, or the walls and roof which shielded me from the rain.”
Nevertheless Weil is expunging some major demons – the double demons of a “terrifying and arrogant” father and an aunt who seemed to the niece (who confesses to “a propensity for life”) to have lived for privation. But what riches are the byproduct! Weil has given us an intimate portrait of her aunt and father, fleshing out the standard biographies. Along the way we get a glimpse of middleclass European Jewry, an aspect of the book that I found fascinating. Not least of all Weil has written a probing account of her struggle to forge her own way through this thicket of exceptionalism, eccentricities, and expectations.
In one of the book’s most arresting passages, Weil describes a near-death experience during a battle with pneumonia, in which she comes face to face with Simone. She explains to her aunt why she does not wish to follow her into the beyond just yet: “I gave lengthy explanations of how I loved the quiet pink skies during winter evenings, and the white birches against the glistening snow,” and that “I even went so far as to frankly state that I loved my body and the pleasures which it procured for me. The niece of Simone Weil loved to make love, and was not ready to renounce it.”
The author’s inheritance, she says, includes “a need to write down everything.” She quotes often from letters dating back generations. One of my favorite chapters is “Family Portrait” which turns out to be not a photograph but a letter written to Andre while he is imprisoned under suspicion of being a Russian spy.
Weil uses the four short epistles written on a single piece of paper from four family members as if they were thumbprints that a sleuth might use to track down a missing person. The chapter is a wonderful exercise in perceptive imagination. It lays out before the reader not only the family members’ personalities and the dynamics between them, but also exposes the writer’s art¬¬, takes us into the creative process itself. If it were a family photograph, it would also somehow include the person behind the camera.
Weil, the author, is no more exempt from cool assessment than father, aunt, or any of the in-laws, grand and great-grand parents. The author’s unflinching descriptions and accounts are pointed. She lays out her story with the detached air of a painter who wishes above all to get the colors right, while also perhaps relishing the power implicit in “capturing” the scene before her, adding flourishes by way of imaginative projections, at will.
The result is a many-layered memoir that is a fascinating read.
The Brattleboro Reformer