Silbermann is a novel centering on anti- Semitism in a Paris school. Published in French in 1922, and newly translated into English by Helen Marx, this slim volume has footnotes and study questions for classroom use. The work is unique in its dual focus; we perceive the aspirations and suffering of Silbermann, a Jewish schoolboy, only through the consciousness of his Protestant classmate who narrates the story. To understand the mind of this narrator, one must appreciate the political and social climate of the time, and a fine introduction by Victor Brombert reminds us of the Dreyfus affair and the xenophobic sentiment then current.
Catholic boys of aristocratic descent dominate the social life of the school and soon become associated with an anti-Semitic political party, Frenchman for France. Angered by Silbermann’s scholarly distinction and his undisguised disdain for them, they begin to harass and attack him in the school yard. The Protestant narrator, a timid outsider himself, influenced by the moral values of his religious upbringing and excited by the idea of self-sacrifice, takes on the role of befriending Silbermann.
The character of the 15-year-old Silbermann is a paradox: he is widely read, sophisticated in his literary judgments, with a gift for nuanced and sensitive dramatic readings. In return for the narrator’s friendship, Silbermann opens his eyes to the beauties of classic and modern literature, generously sharing his library. Yet his manners can be offensive, and not only when provoked. At the same time as he desires friendship, he is contemptuous and abrasive to his schoolmates.
The friendship between the boys grows. The narrator is unflaggingly loyal through the schoolyard beatings. Admiring as he is of Silbermann’s brilliance, he nonetheless tries to subdue his provocative manners. As a frequent visitor in Silbermann’s elegant home, he becomes aware of the lack of style in his own. More importantly, he becomes more critical of his own mother’s calculating social climbing to further his father’s law career. He sees too that his mother, while decrying the injustice done to Silbermann, does not like Jews. So absorbing is his friendship that he is able to overlook his parents’ hypocrisy for a time.
But when Silbermann flees France to learn the diamond trade, our narrator loses his sense of heroic purpose. He also loses all enthusiasm for literature, blaming Silbermann’s critical views and his “confused and superficial teaching.” Worst of all, he learns that his magistrate father bowed to influence in making a court decision in return for his own political gain. “All my illusions about honor, beauty and the customs and beliefs of my family were gone…I felt that my childhood trust had been abused.” Soon afterward he begins to come to terms with his disillusionment when he looks at his mother’s worn features and accepts that she is only human. Weeks pass. At school, weary of the lonely and difficult path he had chosen and seeking to ingratiate himself with a boy from the dominant group, he utters the last words of the novel: an approving remark about an anti-Semitic caricature of Silbermann drawn on a wall. This final caricature joins with the chill imagery of the narrator’s initial prejudice, the Jew as reptile or magician. La Cretelle has given a brilliant portrayal of the role of family and society in the perpetuation of prejudice.