Lessons for a New Year From Jacques Lusseyran

For Christmas I received one of those remarkable books whose lack of wide readership is nearly as remarkable. There was, however, at least one other person who received Jacques Lusseyran's And There Was Light from my girlfriend this Christmas, thanks to the ease with which Amazon allowed her to fire off a copy to her dad's old house in Vermont before realizing the error and buying a second copy for me. If the house's current, unknown residents are the sort of curious New Englanders (or ex-New Yorkers) I expect they are, I am confident that they have already read it, loved it, and begun stalking the internet for someone, anyone, with whom to commune about the astounding Lusseyran. Well, here I am.

The subtitle of the book -- Blind Hero of the French Resistance -- goes partway in describing Lusseyran, and his entry in the Wikipedia list of "Well-known inmates" at Buchenwald -- blind French memoirist and professor -- goes a short way further. But the book itself, in which Lusseyran traces his life up to the age of 20, filters the experience of the resistance and the concentration camps through such a singular lens that these descriptions feel especially pat.

It was not, in fact, for the book's historical interest that my girlfriend was assigned And There Was Light as a child, but rather as part of a lesson on color at the Waldorf school she attended. Lusseyran, who was blinded in an accident at age eight, gives the sighted person as vivid an idea of the experience of blindness as she is likely to read, and his descriptions of light and color -- which he perceived in an intense, synesthetic way -- were thought to be useful to young people studying art. His portrait of the eerie, laser-like senses he developed make one envious, not of his blindness, but of his capacity for experiencing the world so richly through his other senses. How excited he makes us to return, literally, to our senses! In the days since finishing the book, I have felt -- if only wishfully -- that tastes and smells and sounds were all a little more distinct. The book, if read in this way, is perfect for a new year, offering a kind of yoga for the senses.

This might seem a strange way of describing what is also a memoir of imprisonment at Buchenwald, where Lusseyran was sent as a political prisoner for his activities in the resistance. At 17, in 1942, he was one of the founders of the Volunteers of Liberty, a 600-person group that despite (and partly helped by) the youth of its members, distributed vital pro-resistance news to Parisians and eventually, after partnering with another group, throughout France. Lusseyran had an exceptional instinct when interviewing potential allies, whom he could feel out by sound, presence, and even "color" -- a sinister person had a "black bar," while a calm, trustworthy person gave a pale blue impression. Lusseyran's eventual betrayal, by the one member of the group whose loyalty he had doubted, led to Buchenwald, where, nearly alone among his peers from the resistance, he lived to see the Allies arrive in April 1945.

All through this, the earlier chapters on Lusseyran's blindness continue to resonate, much as the knowledge does, when we read Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that every letter was "written" by the blinking of an eye. As in that memoir, too, there is a sense of imagination -- free-floating, optimistic, cultivated, and French in the best possible way -- as the last and best of all refuges.