When I noticed that Selfies by Sylvie Weil was getting good responses on Twitter I ordered it to read for Women in Translation Month (August): #WITMonth. Selfies by Sylvie Weil was published in English in June 2019, having first appeared in French in 2015. It is translated by Ros Schwartz.
I am not clear about the genre of Selfies. It would probably be classed as a memoir, but it is creative and imaginative, so it might be a novel. This confusion results partly from its presentation. This is part of its charm.
Each of the 13 sections contained within Selfies begins with a brief description of a self-portrait by a female artist. The original painting is then is reinterpreted in words as a scenario with the author as the subject. Then follows a narrative, short or long, related to the scene. It seems a little clunky at first, but soon the creative and imaginative format appeals, and it becomes hard to stop reading.
Another way to envisage this book is to anticipate 13 episodes, significant in the author’s life, and to see them refracted through a painted self-portrait.
Sylvie Weil introduces us to her first self-portrait. In about 1200 Claricia, a German illuminator, portrayed herself swinging by the arms from the tail of a large capital ‘Q’.
I will paint my self-portrait as a letter ‘I’ against a background the warm hue of ancient parchment. A perfect upright, slender, graceful adolescent girl, wound like a vine around a rope dangling from a ceiling that is either invisible or covered in verdant foliage, since this is an illumination. … (10)
Her narrative is an account of a gym lesson in her convent. She is climbing ropes and experiencing the sensuous pleasure of her own body.
Gwen John’s Self Portrait with Letter is reimagined as the author painting her own portrait holding a postcard. The pc has a message from an American lover, who after a few days in Paris decides that they will marry and he invites her to New York. The visit does not go well and the reader is relieved when …
We see her as an older woman taking many photographs of everyone at a social event and deleting all except the ones of her son; we read about the best friend relationship that turns out to be not so close; we recognise her reaction to friends who had their dog put down for their convenience and so on. She reflects on herself and how the people around her have influenced her. As one reads the vignettes her development and character become a clearer.
The reader inevitably wonders what self-portraits would s/he draw on, and what that would reveal. I love this French experimentation with form, which makes it an intriguing and compelling read.
Selfies by Sylvie Weil published in English in 2019 by Les Fugatives. Originally published in Paris in 2015. 152 pp
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.