Off from work today, resting a bit of a bad back, I was afforded ample time to finally finish Roberto Bolaño’s massive posthumous novel, 2666. When I carried the box containing its three volumes into the family room to put it away on a shelf, I spotted on a shelf above it, misplaced, a book I have been looking for off and on since we moved to this house—Portable People by Paul West.
I don’t remember where I acquired the book. I am quite sure that I bought it because of having previously read West’s novel, The Rat Man of Paris. But Portable People, while highly imaginative, is not exactly fiction. It is, in fact, a rather strange little book. It is a small paperback—5 ½ “ x 6 ½”—and what it contains are very brief biographical sketches—ranging in length from a single paragraph to several pages—of approximately 85 people, each of which is accompanied by a pen and ink sketch of the subject by somebody named Joe Servello.
There is no apparent rhyme or reason to the persons chosen for inclusion. A random sample of those included would list: Samuel Pepys, Helen Keller, Jack the Ripper, George Gershwin, Carl Sagan, Sir Edward Elgar, Martin Bormann, Yvonne Goolagong (remember her?), Pelé, and William Empson (about whom I’ve recently been posting below). Quite a mix.
But of primary importance to me—and the reason why I am so happy to have located this misplaced book—is that it is the primary source for my knowledge of, and the genesis of my interest in, Simone Weil. It was the biographical sketch in this weird little book that set me to acquiring books by and about Simone Weil—a collection which now takes up about two feet of shelf space and a study which has spanned nearly two decades.
The Servello drawing of Simone Weil is not a good likeness, and the biographical sketch is not in any way flattering. Nonetheless, my interest was seriously piqued. Such is the importance of this little biographical sketch to me, that I intend, over the next few days, to post the entire thing here. If I post anything else during this period, it will be in addition to the next installment of Simone Weil. So, without further ado, Simone Weil – Part I:
Dogs bark at cripples and ghosts and in some ways Simone Weil was both. Not content with the pain she had from recurrent migraines, she sought out for herself starvation and heavy manual labor (both industrial and agricultural); she prayed for extra pain and even to become a total paralytic. One of the least earthly of women, she increasingly fixed her attention—that sapping, inductive, inventive field of force—on God and death, managing to experience epiphanies (“Christ came down, and He took me”) and even to make death do her bidding in the Ashford Sanatorium in Kent in 1944.
End of Part I.