A Penguin Life

By Francine Du Plessix Gray

Viking Penguin. 160 pp. $19.95

She was one of the great enigmas of the 20th century, a contradiction made flesh. A girl with boyish traits. A privileged child who spurned the privileged life. A Jew who loathed her heritage and loved the Catholic faith. A believer in the sacraments who battled against baptismal water. A radical leftist who denounced Marxists. A woman who worshipped God to the point of death hastened by starvation. She was Simone Adolphine Weil (1909-43), the ex officio patron saint of the faithless, of those who turn to God only to encounter the Void.

The end was so Weilian: Only seven people attended her funeral. There was no priest; he missed his train. Originally her gravesite was marked only with the plot number: 79. In it she became what she desired, anonymous nothing -- dirt in God's palm.

But that was prologue. In 1947 her Catholic friend Gustave Thibon (a farmer and self-educated philosopher) published selections from her notebooks under the title Gravity and Grace. A few years later Albert Camus persuaded Gallimard to publish her essays, notebooks and letters. Today, Gallimard is in the process of publishing a projected 15-volume new edition of her works. Likewise in the United States, as in England, Italy, Spain, Germany and even Japan, interest in Weil flourishes. Her unique life (professor, writer, factory worker, political activist, mystic) and writings (on Marxism, quantum physics, Greek tragedy, Taoist texts, etc.) have spawned more than a dozen biographies in America alone, along with some 15 books of commentary.

Enter now Francine Du Plessix Gray and her Simone Weil. This concise biography is the latest installment in the remarkable Penguin Lives series. Gray, a respected novelist whose last book was an in-depth study of the Marquis de Sade, offers up her biography of Weil in a commanding and balanced birth-to-death manner. It is a sophisticated introduction to Simone Weil, to the complicated life and mind of a paradox quartered in an emaciated frame clad in ragtag clothes. Gray admirably covers much basic history -- from Weil's years at the Lycee Henri IV to her employment in heavy-industry factories to her involvement in the Free French movement -- in a short space.

This fairly well-documented biography (which taps some French sources) ably captures several sides of Simone Weil: the "red virgin," the "categorical imperative in skirts," the "sergeant-major angel," the estranged Jew, the first "postmodern theologian." In one of her last letters, to her parents, Weil wrote: "There is within me a deposit of pure gold which must be handed on." Indeed. Her genius spanned much ground from the contextual to the universal, the political to the spiritual, and the scientific to the aesthetic. With her, the personal was cerebral. Her life was her thought and vice-versa.

For Gray the personal/physical is paramount: Weil's "anorexia" is the prism through which Gray portrays her subject. If this useful and sober biography has any limitation, it is that it too often emphasizes Weil the person over Weil the thinker. Sometimes the core tenets of Weil's thought are abbreviated to devote yet more ink to personal traits or to Gray's anorexia thesis. Admittedly, Gray devotes some dozen pages to sum up the "basic concepts that inform [Weil's] work." Though quite good for what it is, the summation stimulates but cannot satisfy the reader's desire to understand Weil's thought.

But this absorbing biography will draw new attention to Weil and her work. From a Weilian perspective, such attention, properly understood, is pure prayer -- the soul endlessly ratcheting its way toward God. *

Ronald K.L. Collins is a writer who lives in Bethesda. His most recent essay on Simone Weil appeared in the Parisian journal Cahiers Simone Weil.