A Life

simone140For all these reasons, she remains my role-model, for she was always able to assert strongly-held convictions with moderation, a virtue I do not always share.

I always think that survivors – of death camps, terror attacks, polio – must get sick of being spoken of as if survival was the defining feature of their personalities. For French feminist Simone Veil the hell of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the seventy-kilometre death march, the starvation, gassings, bereavement – all this was just an opening chapter in a remarkable life.

Of course it never left her. ‘The Holocaust is omnipresent,’ Veil tells us, ‘nothing is erased’. I know that it takes time for horror of such scope to trickle into the public consciousness, but I was still taken aback by the casual postwar racism against deportees. In the years immediately after the war, Veil took to wearing long sleeves. There’s a passage where the eighteen-year-0ld Veil is sent to a Protestant boarding-house where the lights were out at ten and you had to say grace before every meal. It is an accurate portrait of the banality of virtue: ‘We were made to feel exactly how generous our benefactors were for sheltering us under their capacious wings and how infinitely grateful we should be to them.’ Yet she rejects Hannah Arendt’s view that anyone can be responsible for anything, citing throughout her career the sacrifices made by resistance fighters on behalf of Jews.

Later, while the riots of ’68 roared outside her office window, Veil was storming the gates in a quieter and more effective way – planning successful legislation to decriminalise abortion. At this time, the rich travelled to England or Holland to have pregnancies terminated while the rest were forced into dangerous backstreet abortions. Read her parliamentary speech at the end of this volume and you’ll understand how Veil succeeded against a regressive political culture and the discriminatory handicap of being an atheist, Jewish, liberal woman. (We have not made as much progress as we think, incidentally. Witness the outrage from the UK’s conservative press on the prospect of abortion clinics being able to advertise on TV. Oliver Kamm notes: ‘It’s at times like this that I realise how oddly unmerited is the reputation of British conservatism for social pragmatism and working with the grain of human nature.’)

Despite the momentous progress this law represented, it is at precisely this stage of the narrative that Veil begins to sound like a politician. The early chapters, dealing with Veil’s youth, are rendered with eloquence and evocation. As soon as she reaches office, however, all we get are the camera’s tiny flickers of mandatory self-deprecation: ‘I confess, with a pang of remorse but not without amusement, that I had such a light workload that more than once I took myself off to see a film in the afternoon.’ Fortunately: ‘Readers can rest assured, however: I did not spend all my time in the cinema.’

The brevity of this memoir belies the achievements of its subject. At the end of the book, when she’s achieved so much, seen so much, Veil finally discards her political voice for her human voice.

Gradually, darkness pervades the house. To the sound of the piano, I watch the paintings gradually fade before my eyes, and the dead whom we loved, those we knew and did not know, gather silently beside us. I know we will never have finished with them. They accompany us wherever we go, forming a vast chain that links them to us, we who survived.


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