Jacques de Lacretelle
  • Review
By – August 10, 2012

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.

Judy Lewis, a for­mer high school Eng­lish teacher, is the founder and coor­di­na­tor of two book dis­cus­son groups in Great Neck, New York.

Discussion Questions