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A bitter legacy

André and Simone Weil are hardly household names in Britain today, but in the world of mathematics the former is acknowledged as a genius for his work on number theory; and to many philosophers, André’s sister, Simone, is both a genius and a saint.

8 January 2011

12:00 AM

8 January 2011

12:00 AM

At Home with Andre and Simone Weil Sylvie Weil, translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry

Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, pp.192, 22.50

André and Simone Weil are hardly household names in Britain today, but in the world of mathematics the former is acknowledged as a genius for his work on number theory; and to many philosophers, André’s sister, Simone, is both a genius and a saint.

André and Simone Weil are hardly household names in Britain today, but in the world of mathematics the former is acknowledged as a genius for his work on number theory; and to many philosophers, André’s sister, Simone, is both a genius and a saint. A precocious student who beat Simone de Beauvoir for the top place on entering the École Normale, Simone Weil was a socialist activist while working as a teacher in Le Puy and enrolled with the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. She underwent a religious conversion while visiting Assisi in 1937 but never joined the Catholic Church. She died of malnutrition while working for the Free French in London in 1944, refusing to eat more than the basic ration for a worker in France. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

At Home with André and Simone Weil is an elegant and witty memoir-cum-reflection by the daughter of André and niece of Simone. Looking exactly like her aunt, Sylvie Weil became a ‘living relic’ whom Simone’s disciples touched and talked to with reverence without showing the slightest interest in Sylvie herself. General de Gaulle, giving Sylvie a prize for a national composition award, did not congratulate her but whispered: ‘I greatly admired your aunt.’ In fact it was well known that De Gaulle, when leader of the Free French in London, thought Simone was mad.


After Simone’s death, her parents, Sylvie’s grandparents, made Simone’s bedroom into a shrine and laboriously copied out her notebooks. They quarrelled with André over their publication. The ‘saint’ left a legacy of bitterness, and even her saintliness is open to question. Like a latter-day Francis of Assisi, Simone gave away her salary as a teacher to help the unemployed in Le Puy; but is it virtuous or tiresome to insist on sleeping on the floor when the friends she is staying with have prepared a bed?

Worried about her health, Simone’s parents had to pretend to their high-minded daughter that the best fillet steak bought from an expensive butcher was in fact a cheap cut from Les Halles. So too with the fruit. Simone, Sylvie suggests, was happy to let ‘the wool be pulled over her eyes’.

If Simone, then, was an egocentric saint, André was an equally egocentric genius — revered for his work on number theory but, according to Sylvie, a tyrant in the home:

Very early on, I learned not to disturb him when he was working, to maintain a devout silence when he listened to Bach cantatas on the radio Sunday mornings. During my whole childhood, I would discern the looks of terror in the eyes of his young colleagues. And as for me, it was given that he would call me an idiot for not understanding my Latin assignment or an algebra problems … I accepted that he would go off travelling when I was sick, and that he would only listen to me distractedly, with his eyes trained on a book.

The saintly Simone advised her brother and sister-in-law, Sylvie’s parents, to have Sylvie baptised as a Catholic because it would widen the pool of potential husbands. Sylvie, now a successful author, was duly baptised but later in life rediscovered the Judaism that her aunt had rejected and is now married not to a Catholic but a Jew.


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