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At Home with André and Simone Weil

Sylvie Weil
Northwestern University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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This is a unique book on a number of counts. In the first place, the subjects of this biographical/autobiographical memoir are a unique pair of twentieth century savants, siblings wielding great influence in their respective orbits, but in entirely different ways. And the author, daughter to one and niece to the other, is in a unique position to present the story of their lives, from her own entirely idiosyncratic vantage point.

Add to the mix the fact that the family is French, indeed Parisian (notwithstanding its Alsatian roots), and that the book’s style is entirely French, replete with use of the present tense for past events and abundant if evocative renderings of French geography, and you have, to be sure, a unique reading experience ahead of you.

For us mathematicians, the principal draw of this book is, of course, the fact that the male half of the aforementioned savant pair is none other than André Weil, which implies that the other, female, half is his famous sister, Simone, and that the author must be André’s daughter, Sylvie. And, indeed, there is a great deal about André in the pages of At Home with André and Simone Weil.

But there is even more there about Simone, and of course the rest of Sylvie’s family: her mother, André’s beloved wife Eveline, and Sylvie’s parental grandparents Bernard and Selma. It is ultimately a family tale, told by a surviving daughter, filled with love as well as with fragments that are of a clear, and evidently intended, psychotherapeutic nature. Doubtless the work is cathartic to Sylvie, who, after all, grew up in a nuclear family whose nucleus was often abroad (as Weil went from São Paulo to Chicago to Princeton) so that her grandparents had a large role in raising her. The animosity that existed between her cosmopolitan mother and her more parochial (for lack of a better word) grandparents plays a role, given in particular that André himself was the battleground for the affections of Selma and Eveline: a familiar story, but one with measurable aftershocks.

But the lion’s share of cathartic autobiography is devoted to Simone, whom Sylvie resembles closely and whose memory, both public and private, has overshadowed Sylvie all her life. Simone was of course a world famous mystic, philosopher, and activist, whose death of starvation in 1943 (at age 34) left an imprint on her family that cannot be overestimated. Indeed, the theme permeates the pages of the book under review and is in the shadows of a huge number of recountings Sylvie presents of her childhood and later life. This material is naturally very poignant.

All this having been said, then, what about André, the marvelous mathematician? What do we, as interested members of the same guild, learn about this famous icon from none other than his daughter?

Well, we find out that whereas his sister sought a certain invisibility and wished to carry out her vocation under Spartan circumstances, he demanded special consideration at every juncture due to the importance of his work. We learn, too, what we already know, really, at least from gossip and mathematical folk tales: André Weil was short tempered, sarcastic to the point of causticity, and frightened almost every one around him. Sylvie does little to mitigate the image, despite her clear and very touching love for her father.

So be it. But, if I may, I want to add something of a counterexample. In the early1990s, as a fledgling in mathematical research and having just finished working my way through Erich Hecke’s Vorlesungen über die Theorie der Algebraischen Zahlen, I wrote to a number of prominent number theorists, inquiring after the challenge Hecke places at the end of his book, to generalize his Fourier analytic proof of quadratic reciprocity for any number field to higher degrees. André Weil, then well into his eighties, wrote me back in a matter of a fortnight. His short letter contained encouragement, critical references (including his own wonderful and famous paper of 1964, “Sur certains groups d’opérateurs unitaires,” Acta Math. Vol 111, No.1, pp. 143–211), and showed clearly that the old master had all his powers intact. This started a minor Briefwechsel between us, which I think back on very fondly. It is unquestionably the case that I am the recipient of his great kindness.

At Home with André and Simone Weil is a welcome supplement to André Weil’s own Souvenirs d’Apprentissage, or Apprenticeship of a Mathematician, adding an extra dimension only his daughter can provide. It is a touching book, easy to read in some places, (emotionally) difficult in other places.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

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