“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Andy Warhol.

Selfies are a kind of mass embodiment of Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame concept, a form of self-publicising among a peer group. To speak in broad sweeping generalisations, selfies are moments, often thoughtlessly captured, but they are also a means of communication, an empowerment tool, and a positive and negative element in many people’s lives. I have never stopped to consider the selfie before now; it’s value or its role in our connections with each other. This book made me a take a minute to do that, perhaps other un-initiates (sorry) will stop and consider selfies not as some alien cultural trend but see how connected they are to our history of self representation. How they are a natural part of an on going expression of our humanity. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Are selfies just another form of the self-portrait? Of course they are, and the self-portrait has always been a way for us to see something of the inner soul, something that makes us the individual we are, it’s an opportunity to open ourselves up to others. Weil’s selfies are self-portraits that reveal moments from her life. It’s a novel form of memoir and it requires tremendous discipline but Weil pulls it off. This is a collection that conveys something of the life of the woman; brilliantly intelligent, touchingly intimate, self critical and complex.

Each self-portrait is prefaced by a portrait of a female artist from the past. Frida Kahlo features twice, think for a moment about the honesty of a Kahlo portrait, an image of a troubled inner life. Weil then turns the view of the reader on herself. A memoir comprised of moments in life, each ‘selfie’ adding to the story of a remarkable woman. Just as this collection might get mature readers to see that the selfie is not of another world I hope that millennials read Selfies and reflect on their selfies as something people have always been interested in. The difference is simply the ease of new technology. Had a camera phone existed while Weil was growing up in the sixties we might now be looking at an image of her in a group of friends at a bar. It’s a matter of opportunity. Weil even adds a self-portrait as comment on the concept of photo-bombing.

Self image has always been a human concern. Sylvie Weil has always had an awareness of her self image, or at least her desire as a young girl to want to be seen in a certain way. Her father, André, was a brilliant mathematician, her aunt Simone, a world renowned philosopher. The weight of expectation might have been crushing were she not an assured person. Sylvie said in interview that she was not so much intimidated by the intellectual superiority by the moral superiority, the belief that adults knew better, had better standards of behaviour. This book seems to say that is nonsense. She, like any normal teenager at the time, wanted to be like Brigitte Bardot, blond with big boobs.

This is a revealing memoir, Sylvie Weil is a complex woman, perhaps more aware of her moral ambiguities and contradictions than most. Her story delves into troubling personal issues and the concerns of life, love, family. Weil also discusses wider political concerns and at times this is a dark book. Weil has a way of getting to the nub of an issue and drawing the reader into the heart of her story even though these are just brief excerpts, they are poignant and sharply observed. There’s a lot of charm in this collection, the way it’s put together is playful, the pauses it allows for thinking about each vignette are clever.

Each self-portrait is referenced by a painting or a photograph, the extraordinary Vivian Maier is included here. Each triggers a moment. Self-portrait at the organ by Sofonisba Anguissola, court painter to Philip II of Spain is a representation of the artist sitting at a spinet painted in 1561. Weil muses on Anguissola’s story, can she play the instrument? Young women of good families at that time were educated in music. Weil’s self-portrait is of herself sitting at an organ in a church crypt in 1978 waiting for her music teacher to arrive. She practises, makes a comparison with her chaperone and the dark figure in the background in the original painting (it’s a sacristan in her case). Weil vividly recollects her clothes, the organ teacher, her feelings: trepidation, fear and burgeoning adult sensibilities:

“Madame, that is perfect. You are becoming a real organist.”

As she waits he adds:

“Now, you will permit an elderly teacher to make a few observations.”

But I particularly liked this simple thought:

“May I, Madame?”
I long to have a lover who’d ask: “May I, Madame?”

Self portrait as a capital letter is sparked by a drawing in the margins of a twelfth century psalter by Claricia an illuminator. In her own self-portrait Weil, an adolescent school girl, demonstrates a skill and liking for rope climbing in gym class (complete with navy blue knickers), it confounds the others, a teacher calls her down but she is rooted in a moment of her own, a deeply personal experience…

The self-portraits that follow are mostly of the woman moving through adult life. Although each self-portrait might appear fragmentary they are complete encapsulated moments. A watercolour portrait by Gwen John inspires a story from Weil with a postcard image of a restaurant in Port Maillot that explores her relationship with a lover and the dawning of a mother fears for her young son.

These self-portraits reveal how the older, more reflective woman sees the past, there is very little nostalgia. Thought-provoking stories of her son and his mental health, Jewish traditions, anti-Semitism, Palestine, both sides of the divide in Jerusalem, family, loss, generational understanding, and ageism. An amusing memoir, touching, and compassionate. It will speak to many people.

Superbly translated by Ros Schwartz.

Paul Burke 4/4

Selfies by Sylvie Weil
les fugitives  9781999331825 pbk May 2019