Commentary Magazine


Proust and Zhivago

To the Editor:

Maurice Samuel, while paying tribute to Proust’s complex subtlety (“The Concealments of Marcel,” January), does the novelist an injustice. . . . He exclaims at “the staggering un-self-consciousness of Proust” in describing how Bloch, anxious to assert his superiority, ridicules the Jews at Balbec. The self-hatred plaguing the unreligious, partially assimilated Jew has been noted and commented upon many times. Does Samuel think that an author as introspective as Proust was entirely incapable of recognizing this unpleasant trait in himself? . . . If Swann represents the more attractive “Jewish” traits in Proust’s own character, may not Bloch represent the more distasteful? . . .

In the description of Bloch at the drawing room of Mme. de Villeparisis, Samuel . . . seems unaware that Proust is also satirizing the socialites. Indeed, Proust apparently believes that the Jew’s peculiarities are not innate, but socially imposed. . . . From this point of view, Proust cannot be considered governed entirely by “repressed malice,” and certainly cannot be compared with rabid racists.

Samuel might almost be accused of a little anti-Semitism himself in taking the passages on the plight of homosexuals as a “moving lament over the historic condition of the Jewish people. . . .” Proust’s interweaving of the burdens of Jews and homosexuals is thought-provoking . . . but the parallel must not be pushed too far!

Frances Weiss
Claremont, New Hampshire

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To the Editor:

I wish to record my dismay at Mr. Samuel’s attack on Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago. . . .

To the extent that Gordon’s or Lara’s statements can be attributed to Pasternak, they seem to testify to an estrangement from Jewishness and a harshly critical attitude toward Judaism. Now it is perfectly legitimate to deplore Pasternak’s “assimilationism” and to take issue with his wrong-headed view of the Jewish tradition. But it is inexcusable to fling the epithet “contemptible” at one of the greatest and noblest poets of our time, and it is utterly spurious to accuse “Pasternak-Zhivago” of concealing his “Jewish identity” and ignoring Soviet anti-Semitism. . . .

In over-reacting to a marginal strand in the fabric of Dr. Zhivago, Mr. Samuel willfully refused to understand the meaning of a remarkable novel and thus, in his own phrase, “disqualified himself” as a literary critic.

Victor Erlich
Seattle, Washington

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Mr. Samuel writes:

The riddle posed by Frances Weiss is a genuine one for which I have only a partial solution. A sensitive and introspective man may be fully aware of a discreditable fixation without being able to control it. He will indulge and satirize it in alternation, but how Proust does both with such devastating power is beyond me. I do see the contrapuntal satire on the socialites in the passage on Bloch . . . but the point made by Frances Weiss is, I think, invalid. For Proust observes sarcastically that if the Jew “passed” into the French aristocracy, his “rebellious nose, growing like a nasturtium in any but the right direction” would undo him. As for pushing too far the parallel between the homosexual and the Jew . . . it is Proust’s doing, not mine. . . .

Mr. Victor begs the question when he assures us that Pasternak is also one of the noblest poets of our time. Mr. Victor grants that Gordon’s or Lara’s statements might imply in Pasternak “an estrangement from Jewishness and a harshly critical attitude toward Judaism.” Between estrangement and a harshly critical attitude (. . . and Pasternak’s attitude is more than “harshly critical”) there is a vast gulf. To have dragged in the Jewish question, which has no organic relation to the theme of the novel, to have dwelt on the brutality of Czarist Russia toward the Jews, and to have ignored in the midst of much general criticism the more programmatic brutality of Russian Comunism to the Jews . . . seems to indicate that Pasternak is indifferent to the misdeeds of the Communists when they are directed at something to which he is hostile. This is both artistically false and morally unforgivable.

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