I've just finished reading At Home With Andre and Simone Weil. This heart-felt little work allows readers a personal glimpse into the family life and history of the sibling wonders, Andre and Simone Weil. Andre has been called the twentieth century’s ‘Einstein of mathematics’ and Simone is well known for her meteoric life as a philosopher-activist-mystic. Written by surviving family member and award-winning author, Sylvie Weil, At Home offers snippets of the genius, quirks, love, and obsessions of the Weil clan.
Most especially, we feel the tension of how Sylvie herself experiences the oft-bitter privilege of her role as Simone’s look-alike niece—a sort of living relic with the burden and weirdness that her memory imposes. The author accomplishes all of this, weaving humorous, tender and sometimes painful anecdotes in her beautifully Jewish way. I savored At Home over the course of days, each chapter gifting me with new feelings and surprises. The first word that came to me was 'delicious!' But then also ‘excruciating’ and in the end, 'astonishing.'
It required days of contemplation to generate even a few poignant questions for Sylvie’s interview. What strikes me now is the curious and awkward issue of how best to relate to Simone Weil (in a sane way that takes her seriously) and how to relate to Sylvie (as more than ‘Saint Simone’s tibia’). She and her forebears are real people with hearts and faces that deserve to be seen and known ... to me, this book has served that purpose in a remarkable way.
Here is what I mean: some of Simone’s devotees have so lost sight of the Simone Weil of history that they now disfigure her with cult-figure status. She can do and say no wrong to the point where she can do and say nothing. I am ‘of George Grant’ on this point. As Canada’s top thinker, Grant came to regard her life and work as his highest authority next to the Gospels. Yet he never failed to hear Weil carefully enough that he could not also acknowledge her character defects, her logical fallacies, or her excesses. She was not an angelic apparition, but her insights absolutely require a hearing in our era.
So too with Sylvie. A great strength of this book is Sylvie Weil’s honesty about the family dynamics through the decades—including both her deep love for them and the pain she endured through periods of dysfunction. Both realities honor the family in a way that ‘saving face’ never will. She strips away the saccharine veneer with which hagiographers obscure the much richer truth. And she stands forward as a beautiful member of a unique family. I feel that Sylvie Weil enables me to truly see her in the way God’s children should see one another. The brilliance she shares with previous generations is her capacity to astonish on her own terms. And as Simone taught, astonishment illuminates the heart to behold the good, the true, and the beautiful. In this book, I beheld all three.
Brad: Sylvie, thank you for stepping into the public to share your story, and opening a window for us into the world of the Weil clan.
Sylvie: I must say right away how amazed and touched I am by your most sensitive and intelligent comments on my book. Few readers have read me with such attention and accuracy. I am sorry that my answers to your questions will necessarily be disappointing in that I express my thoughts through story-teeling as you put it so well, and it is difficult for me to then further theorize on what I have expressed in the stories.
Brad: It was a pleasure to hear more about Andre Weil, and especially your complex relationship with him. I was especially drawn to your accounts of his postmortem phone-calls. Very intriguing! Not to kill the mystery, where does that come from? Are we meeting Sylvie the literary artist? Or a touch of the mystic? The Jewish story-teller? Please do tell!
Sylvie: You are meeting all three! But in truth the phone calls were part of a recurrent dream. My father called me more than once! This phone call has puzzled a number of readers and some became convinced that I was quite mad.
Brad: On to Simone Weil. Your descriptions of her devotees were so vivid! Although you were gracious, the depictions of glassy-eyed followers are a good warning to me in relating to people I revere. What would you recommend as a healthy approach when interacting with the life and writings of Simone Weil? Maybe you could use your love for Rashi as an example?
Sylvie: Everybody has their own conception of what a “healthy approach” might be. Fetishism can be quite ruthless. In the case of my aunt, some of the “glassy-eyed” fans were not hampered one bit in their mystical enthusiasm by the fact that a whole family, and especially two children, my sister and myself, were being sacrificed on the altar of Saint Simone. As time goes by, there won’t be anyone who can be hurt anymore, so the “cult” will become harmless.
There will be recognition of the beauty of her writings without the fetishistic nonsense about her person.
My love for Rashi, as most Jews’ love for Rashi, comes from reading his commentaries which not only open up the Bible and the Talmud, but are beautiful and also reveal a certain personality: a mischievous story teller who believes in the stories, not just in the grammar. His exegesis bounces back and forth betwen grammar, rabbinic legend and strong faith. Rashi takes you by the hand and guides you through the Bible.
When I created the character of Rashi, that is Shlomo Yitshaki, in my novels, I constructed his personality from his commentaries, but also from those of my father and grandfather.
Brad: You presented a startling 'Revelation' near the end of your book (that I mustn’t spoil for the reader), but I joined you in laughing with joy. I need to ask: Really? Could it be? And if so, why am I so happy? Is it because you are now an even more tangible tibia of a bygone saint? No, but I haven’t yet put a finger on this delight. Even if you are waxing poetic or just toying with the hagiographers ... such blood runs in your veins. But I am inclined to take such revelations seriously and this one in particular. Is there anything you want to add?
Sylvie: Not really. The joy was in the revelation, in that it offered a definition of my own self which made perfect sense. There was no settling of accounts, but the revelation allowed a sort of inner and, yes, joyful reconciliation.