Monday, January 2, 2012

Review: And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1963

It's about: When he was 8 years old, Jacques Lusseyran was blinded in a terrible and bizarre schoolroom accident. But, amazingly, that isn't his defining life event. He went on to become a young scholar and a leader in the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris. He was betrayed and arrested in the Summer of 1943, and then deported to Buchenwald.

And There Was Light is his autobiography, chronicling the first twenty years of his life.

I thought: WOW. Talk about a memoir-worthy life from a unique perspective. I found this book so inspiring that as I sit down to write about it I'm almost in a stupor. It's difficult for me to sum up my thoughts and feelings about it. Monsieur Lusseyran must be one of the most amazing people I have ever read about. Despite all the terrible life events he suffers and witnesses, he never pities himself. Or, at least, he never pities himself in his writing.

He writes about the experience of blindness so clearly that I think I can almost imagine what his world was like. He was born a very visual person, a visual learner, and that gives him an especially interesting point of view after being blinded. He describes his historical studies as an endless scroll of pictorial events and dates. He describes blindness as not darkness (as most sighted people would assume) but glorious inward light. And the way he writes about music! Ah! I am a total sucker for original imagery, and Lusseyran's writing is full of clever, poignant descriptions. I'm not sure whether this comes from being an exceptional writer or from having an exceptional point of view (as a blind person) but I loved that about this book.

My one complaint seems silly now that I'm remembering his incredible life, but I feel like I have to mention it anyway: In his attitude toward women, Jacques Lusseyran was most certainly a product of his time. He gushes about his stalwart male comrades, and then (with a couple of passing exceptions) describes all women and girls as silly, ornamental playthings. He also generally takes a judgmental stance toward anyone who hasn't been successful in life- the former "hobos" with whom he lived at Buchenwald are "stupid and lazy." I wanted M. Lusseyran to be 100% charitable and honorable, but I suppose nobody's perfect.

Still, I'd hate for anyone to read that last paragraph and throw the baby out with the bathwater. I loved this book, and I'd recommend it to almost everyone who wants an uplifting and awe-inspiring reading experience.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf! You will want to have your own copy and a few spares to loan around.

Reading Recommendations: Steel thyself! The Nazis were seriously messed up. Seriously.

Warnings: Some light Christianity. If religion offends you, you might not be as inspired by this book as I was. It's not heavy-handed, though.

Favorite excerpts:
"The world of violins and flutes, of horns and cellos, of fugues, scherzos and gavottes, obeyed laws which were so beautiful and so clear that all music seemed to speak of God. My body was not listening, it was praying. My spirit no longer had bounds, and if tears came to my eyes, I did not feel them running down because they were outside me. I wept with gratitude every time the orchestra began to sing. A world of sounds for a blind man, what sudden grace! No more need to get one's bearings. No more need to wait. The inner world made concrete."

"Before becoming the word of a man, even if the man is Mozart, all music is music. A kind of geometry, but one of inner space. Sentences, but freed from meaning. Without any doubt, of all the things man has made, music is the least human. When I heard it I was all there, with my troubles and my joys, yet it was not myself exactly. It was better than I, bigger and more sure."

What I'm reading next: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (with Connie and Ingrid!)