“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
Considering the grossly caricatured David Silbermann, the main character in Jacques de Lacretelle’s novel, Silbermann, it’s difficult to belief that the book was positively received by Jewish readers upon its 1922 publication. Yet, as Paul La Farge pointed out in 2005, the fictional account of a Protestant boy befriending the bewitchingly smart Silbermann in high school, written by a Protestant in post-Dreyfus France, was striking enough to earn widespread, laudatory attention from the Jewish community.
Almost a century later, we are able to view Lacretelle’s crude characterization with more scrutiny. “Little is missing from this description of the Wandering Jew,” La Farge wrote, “except, perhaps, beady eyes, or a patched coat, or a sack of gold.” Given the opportunity to reflect on the character several decades after the novel’s publication, Lacretelle himself noted, “Is it overdone, this portrait of a young Jew, animated by intellectual ambition? Did I carve his features too deeply, shade his scenes too dark? Assuredly yes. But you must understand why. When one sets out to create a type, one has to make him larger than life.”
For this narrative misstep, the flattening of an admittedly brilliant, evolved young man into a symbol of the Jew as outsider, Lacretelle earns La Farge’s ire; for setting himself apart from a character whose intellectual proclivities so closely resemble his own, Lacretelle commits what La Farge deems a fundamental, ethnocentric error: “he forgets that we are, in large part, them.”
Read School Ties, by Paul La Farge
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.