Selfies by Sylvie Weil (translated by Ros Schwartz)

8th Oct 2019

“Taking selfies,” the blurb of this collection by Sylvie Weil reads, “is not the exclusive preserve of millennials”.

Though the title is presumably somewhat ironic, it is also perfectly apt — and in a world where it has long been considered unappealing for older women to make themselves the centre of attention (Weil is 77), it also functions as an act of quiet defiance.

For Weil, who has long lived in the shadow of her more famous relatives, this may be doubly so.

In Selfies by Sylvie Weil, vignettes function not only as textual self-portraits, as their individual titles (‘Self-portrait as a capital letter’; ‘Self-portrait with dog’) attest — they are also snapshots, brief studies into disparate events and snatches of time.

The individual essays each begin with a short description of a self-portrait by a woman, ranging from historical works of art to an accidental photobombing by the Queen.

These short descriptions open each chapter, followed by a corresponding paragraph from Sylvie Weil, in which she imagines painting herself in response to (and in emulation of) each artwork, providing a framework on which to structure each piece.

As the title suggests, Selfies is a self-conscious book, with Sylvie Weil often reflecting on her outward presentation to the world and the people she interacts with.

The daughter of a famous mathematician and niece of famed philosopher Simone Weil, Sylvie is aware that her existence is preceded and in many ways shaped by these associations; by her Jewish heritage; by her age and gender; the way she dresses, and many other things besides.

The focus, however, is by no means myopic. There are portraits of others, too: the strange, intense American mathematician with whom she has a brief romance, the neighbours who betray the trust of their pet dog and, recurring throughout the most devastating pieces, Sylvie’s son, who is committed to a psychiatric ward after a psychotic breakdown.

Always understated, wry even when describing horror and heartache, Weil’s writing contains a lightness of touch which enables her to weave dark and serious topics — mental health, anti-Semitism, the political situation in Palestine — through more humorous pieces without any jarring changes in tone. Credit here should also go to Ros Schwartz, who has translated Selfies from the original French beautifully.

Overall, Selfies by Sylvie Weil is an unusual book: part autobiography, part essay collection, veering into the somewhat controversial genre of ‘autofiction’ at times.

Quiet and unassuming though it is, there’s much to recommend it. Despite the zeitgeist-y title, Sylvie Weil has avoided the current trend for polemical hot takes and bold proclamations.

Selfies is a thoughtful collection with a subtly feminist slant, and one which allows the reader to draw their own conclusions while still providing plenty to consider.

Selfies is out now