In early 20th-century Paris, there was a boy so mesmerized by math that when his parents took his paper and pencil away, urging him to play, he found a rock and scribbled algebra equations on the sidewalk instead. When he did play, he was the teacher, his younger sister the pupil. He taught her to read, lectured her on astronomy; she shot back with questions, interrogating him relentlessly. A favorite game was reciting sections of verse by Corneille and Racine back and forth until one of them missed a line and received, as just punishment, a slap in the face. Later they would develop the habit of speaking to each other in ancient Greek, to the annoyance—and sometimes the relief—of those in their company. “Once there were a brother and sister,” Karen Olsson writes in “The Weil Conjectures,” “who devoted themselves to the search for truth.”
It’s a fitting beginning, for the story of André and Simone Weil has the quality of a fairy tale—not the chirpy Disney kind but the Brothers Grimm kind. It’s disturbing and strange. Yet what a pair they make: André the great mathematician, who lived to 92, known for his contributions to number theory and algebraic geometry; Simone the philosopher and Christian mystic, who died at 34 by self-starvation but whose writings won her posthumous renown and the admiration of T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus, Czeslaw Milosz, Iris Murdoch and Susan Sontag.
The Weil Conjectures
By Karen Olsson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pages, $26
Ms. Olsson is enthralled. Drawing on the Weils’ writings and letters, she traces their intellectual tug of war as it played out against the backdrop of war-torn Europe. But this isn’t a biography in the traditional mold. Ms. Olsson, a journalist and novelist, layers in reflections on the history of mathematics and the nature of the unknown. The story builds with the poetry and precision of a theorem, shifting intermittently into memoir as her quest to understand the Weils recalls her own youthful obsession with math.
“They thought their way into esoteric domains,” Ms. Olsson writes, “found purpose in concentrated inquiry and likewise in the glimpse, the pursuit, the almost there, the exhilarations, the frustrations, of being partially shown and at the same time denied the dangling fruits of their searches.” André’s calculations, suspected of being codes, landed him briefly in prison in Finland, where he was traveling when World War II broke out. In Paris, Simone dedicated herself to the truth, plagued by a sense of inferiority to her genius brother. “I didn’t mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” With terrifying discipline, she concentrated all of her attention on gaining access. She wrote feverishly, notebooks upon notebooks of mathematical, philosophical and religious meditations, which her parents would lovingly copy out after her death. She questioned her brother about his work in letters that helped sustain him through the tedium of captivity. Though desperate to understand his ideas, she was troubled by a sense that mathematics had become disconnected from life, a self-referential system of signs, abstract to the point of meaninglessness.
There was bliss in their struggles. Ms. Olsson recognizes it from her college studies at Harvard, the euphoria that comes of thinking hard about math. She watches YouTube videos of math lectures, eager less for the knowledge than for the feeling, “as though knowledge itself were a bit of a letdown: it’s being on the cusp that brings the greater pleasure.”
While André chased mathematical exaltation, Simone sought truth through suffering. (“I must be tricky, cunning, I must hamper myself with obstacles that lead me to where I want to go.”) She subjected herself to hard labor in factories and fields, though she was too frail to be useful, too slowed down by this “peculiar, inveterate habit of thinking, which I can’t shake off.” She joined a Resistance network and fixated on the suicidal idea of being airdropped to the front lines to tend to the wounded. She prayed, perversely, for pain, for her own dissolution. “What she aspires to is a state of selfless perception, in which her mind wouldn’t be limited to the data of her own senses,” Ms. Olsson writes, explicating madness as elegantly as she explicates mathematics. By 1943, Simone succeeded, having starved herself in solidarity with France’s children.
What to make of this woman’s monstrous purity, her contradictory concern for and disavowal of material experience? She is alternately hailed as a moral genius and dismissed as a madwoman. Ms. Olsson sees her as shaped by her brother, “bent from birth” by his belief in his superiority. As a child, she wished to be a boy and went by “Simon,” signing letters to her parents “your respectful son.” In adulthood she battled André’s insistence that explaining his work to her would be like describing a symphony to a deaf person. While André married and had children, Simone is not known to have had a single lover. Yet she was infatuated with her infant niece. Don’t “let her become a flirt,” she told André. An inauthentic self—the worst thing a woman could be.
Here is the heart of the mystery, and one longs for Ms. Olsson to pursue her intriguing theory a little further. She weaves anecdotes about legendary mathematicians through the book: Archimedes, struck by insight, running naked through the streets; René Descartes compressing the unknown into a symbol—x; L.E.J. Brouwer, a Dutchman with a fondness for topology and (again) nudism. How does gender alter the equation of genius, the search for truth? There is a glimpse in the figure of Sophie Germain, who, barred from the universities in 18th-century France, taught herself from the lecture notes of her male peers and the books in her father’s library, corresponding with the great mathematicians of the day under a pseudonym. But there is no female mathematician running naked through the streets. There is the body of Simone Weil, which she wished only to be rid of.
—Ms. Winkler writes about books and culture for the Journal.
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