Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Man

The Statue Within: An Autobiography

by François Jacob, translated by Franklin Philip
Basic Books, 326 pp., $22.95

François Jacob
François Jacob; drawing by David Levine

When they write their autobiographies successful people often follow the pattern of Charlie Chaplin, who in My Autobiography first delights us with his youthful acting talent, which raised him to fame and fortune from a childhood of penury and want, and then bores us with an enumeration of his movies and all the important people he has met. By contrast, François Jacob gives no hint that he is now president of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, a Nobel Laureate, and one of the world’s leading biologists. He presents us with a remarkable life that is symbolic of the tragedy and rebirth of France. Jacob was born in Paris in 1920, of well-to-do Jewish middle-class parents, and had a happy childhood. He attended school in Paris, intending at first to become a soldier like his maternal grandfather, the four-star Jewish general in the French artillery, a wise man full of vigor and courage, a patriot yet no chauvinist, a humane soldier who was the “statue within” of the title, and on whom young François tried to model himself. The obligatory stepping stone to a military career was the Ecole Polytechnique, but the Draconian teachers of the lycée that prepared boys for entry to that famous institution were so sadistic that Jacob quit and decided to become a surgeon instead.

Jacob does not present a sequential account of his life, but a selection of vivid images and episodes like a show of jumbled lantern slides. He sees his life as “a series of different selves—I might almost say, strangers…. Would I recognize them if I passed them in the street?” Yet he made me feel as if their moods and fantasies had been my own, as if I had been an only child loved by his charming mother, had dissected corpses in his anatomy class, had been wounded in battle during World War II, or bungled my research; or as if I had encountered the hauteur of General de Gaulle (“the majesty of a Gothic cathedral”) or lived with the charm, brilliance, and arrogance of his colleague Jacques Monod.

When the young François admired Napoleon, his grandfather told him to idolize no one, neither great men, because they are no gods, nor gods, because they don’t exist. When the general felt he was soon to die, he told the boy not to believe in a life hereafter. He clasped his hand, looked into his eyes, and repeated: “There is nothing. Nothing. The void. So my only hope is you. You and the children you’ll have.” In place of religion, the general built up in the boy’s mind faith in France’s great institutions. Jacob writes:

The Constitution, the authorities, the civil service, the army,…the Polytechnique were a little like the Pantheon, the Arch of Triumph, Notre Dame…. They formed the indestructible framework of our country, of our life…. I scarcely imagined that better…

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