Translated by Ros Schwartz
Review by Karen Langley
The selfie might seem to be a very modern phenomenon; the sight of people constantly stretching their arms out and craning to get a snap of themselves in a special location or with a famous person has become commonplace. We live in a modern age characterised by fast communications, short attention spans and a huge focus on self-image. However, a fascinating new book by Sylvie Weil makes it clear that the selfie really isn’t that modern at all!
Weil is an author with an intriguing pedigree: she’s the niece of Simone Weil, the philosopher, and her father was the famous mathematician Andre Weil. Sylvie herself is a distinguished academic and author, although I get the sense that she’s often overshadowed by the rest of her family. Les Fugitives is an imprint with a remit which is very appealing– to publish contemporary French writing in translation – and Weil’s book is their seventh release.
“Selfies” features a photograph by Vivian Maier on the cover, and a better choice couldn’t have been made; in many ways, that self-effacing photographer is reminiscent of Weil herself, and both are concerned with what the self-portrait can hide or reveal. Weil’s book is structured in thirteen sections of varying lengths; each takes as its starting point a work of art which is a self-portrait of a female artist and Weil uses this to theme her own recollections, which are self-portraits in writing. It’s a really interesting concept, and allows Weil to explore not only her past and life, but the way we view women artists and they way they choose to present themselves to the world.
So, for example, “Self-portrait at the organ” starts with a description on a self-portrait by Sofonisba Angiossola from 1561; Weil then follows this with a nuanced memory of organ lessons as a young girl and her music teacher of a “venerable age”. “Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom” springs from a painting by Gabriele Munter and explores a toxic friendship. And “Self-portrait with a dog” is one of two pieces using the works of Frida Kahlo as inspiration (and it’s quite heartbreaking, too, in an understated way). This method allows Weil to explore her memories, sometimes in a playful way, but often with a deeper, darker tone; there are some really difficult and moving pieces in the book, and in particular the events relating to Weil’s son are desperately sad.
When Japanese friends told me, before my trip, that I’d see the cherry blossom, I replied politely: “Cherry blossom, how lovely, I’m thrilled.” I had no clue. I didn’t realise that I’d walk for days under a shower of petals, that I’d see pink rivers and at night I’d join long, slow processions, dark rivers mirroring the pale rivers of petals, and that like everyone else I’d hold my camera high above my head to capture and possess a tiny fragment of the stunning, soft, pink mass.
Lighter moments come from chapters like “Self-portrait as an author”, where Weil wryly explores the discomfort experienced by a writer at a bookstore signing, where a much more popular author is receiving all the attention from the shopping public. And “Self-portrait as a visitor” reveals the different perceptions that we can have of someone and how a friend will never see the same side of that person as a family member will. In fact, Weil’s family is a theme which runs through the book, all the way up to the very clever “Photobomb selfie”, the last piece in the book.
“Selfies” is a short book but is packed with so much that lingers in the mind, provoking thought long after I’d finished reading it. Weil weaves the threads of her life into her narratives brilliantly, allowing her to cover topics such as anti-Semitism, Palestine, ageism, genetics and psychosis. The format means she always approaches these with a delicate touch and the book is quick to read, though not lightweight; its imagery and stories are powerful and stay with you. The book also had the (perhaps intentional!) effect of making me go and research the women artists I’d not heard of so that I could actually *see* the pictures Weil was describing. The self-portrait is such a part of art history that I’m just surprised I hadn’t made the connection with the modern selfie before!
So “Selfies” turned out to be an original and inventive way to discuss memory, history and perception, as well as how women’s lives are understood. Sylvie Weil has obviously been too long under the shadow of her famous forebears and it’s about time more of her work was available in English. Kudos therefore have to go not only to Weil for writing such a marvellous book, but also to translator Ros Schwartz for her linguistic services, and Les Fugitives for publishing the book – their catalogue is obviously going to be one to watch!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and tends to prefer a little anonymity.
Sylvie Weil, Selfies (Les Fugitives, 2019). ISBN 9781999331825, 160pp, paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)