cover image SIMONE WEIL


Francine Du Plessix Gray, . . Lipper/Viking, $19.95 (246pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89998-2

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. (June)