Friday, April 23, 2010

Reader's Diary #606- Sarah Klassen: Simone Weil, Songs of Hunger and Love

In the past couple of years, I'd read two biographies told as a series of poems. First, there was Randall Maggs' brilliant Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. Then there was Yvonne Trainer's Tom Three Persons. After the latter, I found myself wondering if all biographies should be told in verse. After reading Sarah Klassen's poetic biography of Simone Weil, I'm inclined to say that depends on the poet.

If you're like me, you have not heard of Simone Weil. But a blurb on the back from Liba (Libby) Scheier caught my attention:
Sarah Klassen's intelligent lyrical poetry and prose give a strong voice to the brilliant, startling, enigmatic figure of Simone Weil, the renowned French thinker and activist-- philosopher, mystic, artist, writer, literary critic, leftist, Jew-turned-Christian, anti-Fascist, and pacifist-- who starved herself to death in 1943 at the age of 34.

Sounds like an interesting character, to be sure. Unfortunately, I learned more about Weil from that single blurb than the rest of the book. I'm not just talking biographical facts either-- I could find a nonfiction biography on Weil if that's all I wanted. However, where Maggs and Trainer were able to capture, or at least contemplate on, the many psychological and sociological events that shaped their character's personality and destiny, Klassen's exploration of Weil was one dimensional and dull.

If Klassen is to believed, Weil was one of the most depressing and humorless characters ever to walk the Earth. She makes Sylvia Plath sound like Minnie Mouse. Page after page of crash down in dissonant rage like a trapped swallow in the falling darkness gashes inflicted or received tears flood her eyes I was desolate branded me a slave growing reproachfully thin tear out barb-wire walls and burn them...

Read Weil's Wikipedia page. While Weil doesn't come across as someone who'd been into rainbows and unicorns, she's certainly more intriguing than Klassen made her seem. I prefer a Wikipedia page to a book? That's probably the worst insult I can muster and I'm not even trying to be mean.


Wanda said...

Sounds similar to my experience reading "Nerve Language", interesting images but as a biography it was way too obscure.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: I should note that, in Klassen's defense, she never once claimed it would be a biography (nor did Maggs for that matter). However, basing a book, even a book of poetry, on someone's life, takes some responsibility in representation. Scheier's comment that Klassen gave Weil a voice is false. Writing in the first person, pretending to be Weil, is not enough. I'm sure journals of the real Weil would show someone more complex than this. Anyone is more complex than this.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Hmmm pretty powerful condemnation. I think I will stick to Wikipedia, or your blog!