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The art of the self-portrait @LesFugitives #sylvieweil

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Selfies by Sylvie Weil
Translated by Ros Schwartz

We live in a modern age characterised by fast communications, short attention spans and a huge focus on the self; all of which might seem like new and modern preoccupations. However, I was reminded that there is nothing new under the sun by Prof. Richard Clay’s excellent “How to go Viral” programme back in March; Richard pointed out that memes were really nothing new and that the transfer of signs and symbols in popular culture had a long and varied history. And reading a fascinating new review book which popped through the door recently, I realised that that arch-symbol of modernity, the selfie, really isn’t that modern at all!

The book is called just that – “Selfies” – and is by Sylvie Weil, published by Les Fugitives. Weil is an author not as new to me as I orginally thought; she’s the niece of Simone Weil, the philosopher, whose Virago collection I picked up fairly recently in the Oxfam. Her father was the famous mathematician Andre Weil; and 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 are a new imprint for me, but their remit is one that appeals very much – to publish contemporary French writing in translation – and so I was very pleased that they decided to send me a review copy of this book, because I might not have stumbled across it otherwise, and it really was excellent.

“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 writer 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 – 152 pages – 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 and Les Fugitives for publishing the book – I can see I’m going to have to watch their catalogue with interest! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! “Selfies” is published on 25th June.)

March on the Ramblings – upcoming documentary fun plus an @NYRBClassics event!

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No – I’m not suggesting for a minute that I want you all turning up at my doorstep with placards demanding something or other; instead, I thought I would just drop a little post in with some bits and bobs about what to expect over the next week or two on the Ramblings.

c. ClearStory/BBC

As you might have noticed, I am sunk in the depths of Dostoevsky’s Devils and absolutely loving it. It *will* take me a little time to read, but to keep you occupied there are a couple of reviews scheduled, which will be followed by some Extra Special Posts. As I’ve hinted, Professor Richard Clay has a new documentary due in the next couple of weeks on the subject of memes, and as well as a review of the programme there will be a couple of other Posts of Interest related to Viral which I hope you’ll enjoy – watch this space… ;D

One of my forthcoming reviews is of a NYRB release Lost Time by Józef Czapski; the publisher is releasing this, his book Inhuman Land and a biography, and to tie in with the launch is holding a special event in London on Friday March 15th. Entitled “Józef Czapski: A Beautiful Human Being”, it will take place at the Ognisko restaurant, and features esteemed translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Dr. Stanley Bill of Cambridge University. The evening promises to focus on Czapski’s life and particularly  Inhuman Land (which I’ll be reading and reviewing at a later date) and should be interesting as well as stimulating. Alas, I shall be unable to sneak away from the wilds of East Anglia (which I’m a bit cross about), but if you’re in the Big Smoke the event is reasonably priced and sounds fascinating, so do try to go along if you can! You can find more information about the event here.

Meantime – back to scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence! 😀

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