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Simone Weil (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – June 25, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Writing with her customary grace and acuity, Francine du Plessix Gray, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated At Home with the Marquis de Sade, examines an equally extreme character at the opposite end of the moral spectrum in Simone Weil. Weil (1909-43) displayed early the ferocious intellect that took this daughter of affluent, highly assimilated French Jews to the peak of her country's rigorous educational system and made her an important modern philosopher. But Weil remains a beacon to activists because of her passionate, intensely personal commitment to the world's oppressed and her need to directly share their sufferings. This need had its neurotic aspects, and Gray's elegant biography does not gloss over Weil's lifelong anorexia, her distaste for physical contact, her peculiar brand of anti-Semitism, or the unyielding self-righteousness that led her to cut off friendships for minor offenses. Yet the overall tone is one of sympathetic respect for an extraordinary human being unable to develop the willed blindness that enables most of us to live comfortably while others go without. Weil gave up prestigious teaching jobs to do manual labor; she performed dangerous work in the Resistance; and, when threatened by a Vichy policeman who exclaimed angrily, "You little bitch, we'll have you thrown in jail with the whores!" she replied coolly, "I've always wanted to know that milieu." Her slow, exceedingly tentative movement toward Christianity grew from her need to affirm her solidarity with the world's "slaves," and her prescient denunciation of Communism at a time when most radicals embraced it arose from her understanding that Soviet apparatchiks abused the working class just as egregiously as their putative opponents, the fascists. This is an outstanding introduction for general readers to the influential thought and rivetingly conflicted life of a seminal figure in 20th-century intellectual history. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Gray, who as novelist and biographer has illuminated the mystery of human suffering (most recently in At Home with the Marquis de Sade, 1998, a Pulitzer Prize finalist), was the perfect pick to write a volume on Simone Weil (1909-1943) for the admirable Penguin Lives series of short, popular biographies. Weil, the Jewish-born but Christ-loving, intermittently blue-collar author of brilliant political essays and breathtaking spiritual aphorisms, was a complex of suffering on all levels. She suffered from a profoundly negative self-image, incapacitating migraines and self-starvation, voluntarily assumed factory labor of the most grueling kind, endured the defeat of France in WWII and distance from God. The paradox in this panoply of ills is that, while superficially humbling, they reveal Weil's enormous force of personal will. Gray is a wise and compassionate Virgil to the bewildered reader who chances upon this transfixing, even seductive inferno (or purgatory, or heaven the boundaries blur) of largely self-imposed pain. She clarifies the gradual transition in Weil's life from left-wing political activism to world-renouncing spirituality, and critiques what she sees as "priggish" and "perverse" tendencies in Weil's moral idealisms, from her Francophile fervors to her gnostic anti-Judaism. In some ways, Weil was simply a "spoiled brat," Gray notes. Finally, Gray absolves Weil of her excesses by revealing the intense spirituality beneath them and the love and admiration she elicited despite them. If Gray herself tends to excess, it is in her multiple citings (at least 13) of anorexia as medical cause of her subject's extremes. But her fine selection of perfectly apposite anecdotes more than compensates. The result is a virtuosic achievement, possibly unique among popular treatments of Weil: a short, measured biography of a short but startlingly unmeasured and unmeasuring life.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Hardcover: 246 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (June 25, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297646273
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670899982
  • ASIN: 0670899984
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.3 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #577,195 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Bruno Gass on May 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The most memorable and the most compelling thread in Gray's narrative for me is the new focus on Weil's relationship with her parents: they made great sacrifices to ensure that Simone was safe, living well, or at living decently, throughout her many willfull and ruinous physcial and spiritual experiences. Weil's mother followed her from town to town as she took on different teaching posts or factory jobs, making sure her living quarters were at least semi-satisfactory and slipping money to local food merchants so they would give her more than she would normally buy for herself. These accounts are gut wrenching in their way. Gray suggests the intensity of the relationship between parents and child through these kinds of accounts, their strenuous attempts to simply keep their child alive, but the deeper psychological attachments and tussels remain a mystery. Gray says that it was Simone who safely saw her parents to New York in the early 1940s, in escape of the war, but perhaps it was the other way around. I wonder if, when Simone then swiftly decided to return to Europe to plunge herself head first into the annilation of war her parents realized she was essentially committing suicide? How could they have let her go? And yet, how could they have made her stay? Gray doesn't say. All biographers bring something of themselves to their subjects and it was only after Gray's biography of her own parents, entitled Them, recently came out that I understood why her focus on Weil's parents was so loaded with poignancy and meaning.
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30 of 38 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
It is hard for me to understand why someone would choose to write a book about a person they obviously dislike and then do a bad job of researching their lives. There are some wonderful biographies of Simone Weil out there, including one by her friend Simone Petrement. This books has gotten most of the facts wrong and turned a young woman searching in her own way for truth into a weird, comical figure which she certainly wasn't. Most of the stories quoted by the author are anecdotal at best. Reading this book is a waste of time. If you want to know Simone Weil, read her books.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Belinda on October 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I had read a few of Simone Weil's essays and admired them greatly, but didn't know much about the woman herself. This book is a good source of basic biographical facts, but the author leaves a lot to be desired in discussing Weil's philosophy. Yes, this is a biography, not a philosophy text. This being a biography of a philosopher, however, one might expect *some* sort of argument to be presented when the subject's philosophy is being dismissed.
The anti-semitic opinions Weil held are obviously distasteful to most intelligent people and no explanations are needed as to why these views of hers were wrongheaded. But when the author is dealing with Weil's specific criticisms of the Old Testament, she calls her readings of it "skewed" and "distorted by the bizarre conception of God" she had developed through studying various world religions, yet she gives no reasons why Weil's readings were skewed or why her conception of God is so bizarre. From what I've gathered in this book, Weil's conceptions of God were quite reasonable.
I'm glad this book presents the faults along with the virtues of this great thinker, but such swift and unreasoned dismissals of certain parts of her philosophies are off-putting, and this book is rife with them.
A little nit-picking: the author goes back and forth between calling her "Weil" and "Simone" with no ostensible rationale for doing so. Also, at one point in the book, for no apparent reason, she describes events in Weil's life in the present tense for a few pages.
All that being said, the book has mostly satisfied my curiosity about Weil's life. I wouldn't say it's not worth reading.
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35 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Eddie Kasica on June 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Lovers of the great, tender Weil will have no need for this little book. The danger here lies in a reader new to Weil, picking this up, reading it, and struggling with Gray's simplistic, biased agenda concerning Weil's abandonment of leftist politics(not true), hatred of sex and romance(not true), defaming and misuse of Jewish thought and history(certainly not true). In fact, du Plessix Gray spends more time celebrating Simone Weil as a sort of 1930s French version of the hideous David Horowitz(once left, now far right), then she does helping the reader understand the heart and soul of Weil's holiness and unending compassion. So don't waste your time here. Rather, try instead: Jacques Cabaud's "Simone Weil: a Fellowship in Love"; Simone Petrement's "Simone Weil: A Life"; or, "Simone Weil: A Sketch of a Portrait" by Richard Rees.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Tim on September 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Having read many of the other books in this Penguin biography series, I looked forward to this book on Simone Weil. I was not disappointed. Ms. Gray has presented us with a careful, thorough treatment of Weil's life and thought. One of the strengths of the book is the insights the author provides into the motivations that lay behind Weil's unusual life: her Marxist activism, her mystic Christianity, her sacrificial identification with workers and soldiers that ultimately led to her pre-mature death. There is a nice balance between describing the events of Weil's and the elements of her thought. In other words, the latter does not overwhelm the former. Weil's story is one that bears reflection, and this book enables the reader to do just that.
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