Hélène Peltier, Boris Pasternak, and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli

At the beginning of December 2014 I finally found the time to go to Sylvanès in Southern France (one hour from Albi) to work through the Hélène Peltier archive. Hélène Peltier (1924-2012), married Zamoyska, was a French Slavic scholar who taught at Toulouse. She became part of the team of French translators of Doctor Zhivago (with Michel Aucouturier, Jacqueline de Proyart, and Louis Martinez). Peltier had visited Pasternak in the fall of 1956 and on that occasion had been given a copy of Doctor Zhivago (see Lettres à mes amies françaises, Gallimard, 1994 (henceforth Lettres 1994), pp. 20-21). I will return on a different occasion to the early history of Doctor Zhivago in France. In this post my main aim is to clarify the nature of a mysterious strip of paper preserved in the Feltrinelli archives in Milan.

In Sylvanès, I was a guest of André Gouzes, a dear friend of Hélène and her husband, the Polish sculptor August Zamoyski (1893-1970) (click here for a 1976 interview featuring August and Hélène). André was also instrumental in creating the Musée Zamoyski. Before dying Hélène entrusted André with her Nachlaß. I can’t even begin to describe the enormous impression André Gouzes, a most generous host, left on me.

Sylvanès by A. Gouzes and R. Poujol

Sylvanès by A. Gouzes and R. Poujol

An internationally renowned composer of sacred music, he was also the main force behind the reconstruction of one of the most beautiful Cistercian monasteries of Southern France, namely the Abbaye de Sylvanès. The story of that incredible project and of the visionary spirit and practical skills that André brought to it is recounted in the moving book co-authored by André Gouzes and René Pujol, Sylvanès. Histoire d’une passion (Desclée de Brouwer, 2010), which I highly recommend.

Let me begin with a short summary of Hélène Peltier’s career up to the late 1950s. Hélène was born in Riga on March 22, 1924. She finished the first part of her high school degree (Baccalauréat; Greek and Latin) in June 1940 in Lannion. She then spent the year 1940-1941 in Stockholm where she studied mathematics. In 1942, in Toulon, she took the second part of her Baccalauréat in Philosophy. In 1942-43 she was in “Classe de Prémière Supérieure” at the Lycée Camille Sée in Paris. From 1943 to 1946 she studied Russian at the School of Oriental Languages in Paris obtaining her degree in 1946. She was then a student at the University of Moscow from 1946 to 1950. She has left detailed narrations of this period of her life which are of great interest, especially on account of the fact that at the time almost no Westerners were allowed to study in Soviet Universities. During this period she attended several courses in literature and philology but also took the required courses on Marxism-Leninism. Back in France in 1950, she obtained her “licence en russe” at the Sorbonne and was “chargée de mission” for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. In 1953 she obtained her degree of advanced studies (D.E.A.) writing a thesis on K. Fedin. In 1953-1954 she was an assistant to the cultural attaché to the French Embassy in Moscow. In 1954 she obtained her “agregation” in Russian and taught at the Lycée Classique de Jeunes Filles in Toulouse from 1954 to 1957. In 1957 she became “assistante de russe” at the University of Toulouse where she stayed for the remaining part of her professional life.

Hélène Peltier (1924-2012)

Hélène Peltier (1924-2012)

Peltier met Pasternak in September 1956. The reason for her visit to Moscow was occasioned by a request by M. Coblot, editor of the review “Cahiers Pédagogiques”, who proposed to Peltier to write an article on the teaching of French in the USSR. She obtained a scholarship from the “Relations Culturelles” office and she went to Moscow for six weeks arriving in late August 1956 and departing in mid-October 1956. She lived on the Lenin Hills, the location of the new buildings of Moscow University. The French Embassy in Moscow informed the Soviet authorities of Peltier’s research subject and Peltier reports that she was given efficient and quick help by the Soviets. After going back to France she wrote a 29 page report detailing the state of teaching of French in the USSR and making a few recommendations for the improvement of the relations between France and the USSR in this area. During her stay in Moscow in fall 1956, Peltier met Pasternak three times.

Hélène Peltier

Hélène Peltier

In Lettres 1994, one can read the letters from Pasternak to Peltier written while she was in Moscow and Pasternak and Pasternak 1997 also includes the letters from Peltier to Pasternak. During this period, Pasternak put her in charge of seeking publishers for Doctor Zhivago in France and also gave her a copy of the typescript of Doctor Zhivago. Back in France, Peltier was in contact with several publishers, including Rocher, Fasquelle and Gallimard. I will discuss in a future post this early interest concerning Doctor Zhivago in France. Here I will simply say that Gallimard’s interest in Doctor Zhivago had emerged even before Peltier’s return from the Soviet Union. Indeed, Pasternak had already spoken about his new novel with Aucouturier and Martinez (see previous post on “The writer and the valet”) in spring 1956. Confirmation that Doctor Zhivago was of great interest to Gallimard very early on comes from a letter by Manya Harari to Max Hayward (both future translators of Doctor Zhivago into English) written on September 10, 1956. Harari wrote:

I spent the week end in Paris and made my usual call on Gallimard. They are doing a series of Russian books which, I now find, are being edited by Aragon. Among them are “The Thaw” and “Russian Forest” – that was all I could find out, as all the responsible people were away (Friday afternoon in September), and I only saw a girl assistant. But, this is the point, she knew all about P[asternak]’s novel, as she had heard it widely discussed. Not the Ms – she said she didn’t know where that was – but the fact that P. was keen on getting it done abroad and a rumour that an Italian publisher (name unknown) claims to represent P. in negotiating with other publishers.

The publisher was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Before Peltier left Moscow, Pasternak asked her to convey a message to his publisher. In Carlo Feltrinelli’s book Senior Service (1999) we read:  

“If ever you receive a letter in any language other than French, you absolutely must not do what is requested of you – the only valid letters shall be those written in French.” How Pasternak’s message arrived, written on a cigarette paper, I don’t know” (p. 101 of the American translation, Harcourt, 2001; p. 120 of the original 1999 Italian edition).

The strip of paper is actually torn from an ordinary sheet of paper. In addition to the message in French (…S’il reçoit jamais une lettre dans une autre langue que le français, il ne doit en aucune façon executer ce qui lui serait demandé – les seules lettres valables seront écrites en français.) there is a handwritten part that says “De la part de Pasternak 1/2 Helène Peltier Toulouse 6, Allé des Demoiselles”. (Feltrinelli archives, Milan)

Message from Pasternak to Feltrinelli sent through Peltier

Message from Pasternak to Feltrinelli sent through Peltier

A full clarification of when and how this message reached Feltrinelli requires the joint use of a few archives. I would like to thank Professor Antonello Venturi (Pisa) for having helped me locate some of the materials below and for having granted permission to cite the materials from the Franco Venturi archives. All the correspondence cited below is in French except for the last citation which is originally in Italian. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

In the Fondo Franco Venturi in Turin there is a long letter from Peltier to Franco Venturi (1914-1994), a prominent Italian historian, dated October 26, 1956, which gives Venturi an overview of her experiences in the Soviet Union in the fall 1956 (Peltier had left Moscow in mid-October 1956). The parts that is relevant for Pasternak is the following:

The most extraordinary encounter was the one with Pasternak. Through some friends I was acquainted with his most recent poems which had been circulating in secret for some years. But no matter how beautiful they are, they are not as striking as their author. I have seen him three times and once at his place I saw Akhmatova! I cannot convey what these visits were like. I am still bolt over by them. In this connection I would like to ask for your advise. Boris Pasternak has entrusted a copy of his novel to an Italian journalist who handed it to an Italian publisher. In Moscow everyone knows this and Boris Leonidovich does not make efforts to deny the fact. He has explained to me in great detail how this took place. The publisher’s name is Feltrinelli. He lives in Milan in Via Fatebene fratelli [sic] 15. Do you know him? I have been charged [by Pasternak] to deliver him a message but since my name is unknown to Feltrinelli I am afraid that he will not take it seriously. I only have to let him know that if he ever receives a letter from B.L. in any language other than French, he absolutely must not do what is requested of him. The only valid letters shall be those written in French. If you know this Mr. Feltrinelli, I would like to ask you to inform him discreetly; but if you think that I can write to him directly, I will do so. (Peltier to Venturi, October 26, 1956; Archivio privato Franco Venturi, Torino)

Venturi replied to Peltier on November 11, 1956:

Franco Venturi (1914-1994)

Franco Venturi (1914-1994)

It took a bit longer than planned to reply because I wanted to give you some news about the two problems you have asked me about. Concerning the first (Pasternak), I must say that I have hesitated somewhat. Here is the reason: I have known Feltrinelli quite well some years ago. He is an immensely rich man who spends enormous sums for developing a splendid library on the history of socialism. He also funds a history journal “Movimento operaio” (Workers’ movement) which has been coming our for a few years. At the beginning I was on the editorial board. But I handed in my resignation because Feltrinelli was running it more and more along the lines of Stalinism or of an official and orthodox communism. A year ago, Feltrinelli started a big publishing house which does good things but all according to the line. It is true that things have changed a little bit in these past few weeks when I was told that also Feltrinelli was sensitive to the protests against the Russian army for what it is doing in Hungary and that he had reacted normally with respect to this decisive problem. I have immediately asked a trustworthy friend, and one completely suitable for the delivery of the message, to tell Feltrinelli what you wrote to me. So, he now knows. (Venturi a Peltier, 15.11.56; Peltier archive, Sylvanès; original in French)

As Peltier had not heard from Venturi in a while, she decided to write directly to Feltrinelli. In the Peltier Archive there is a draft of the letter she sent dated 17 November 1956. Regrettably the original letter is not found in the Feltrinelli archives. Since the letter contains many erasures, I will summarize its contents. Peltier informed Feltrinelli that she had asked Venturi and his wife to deliver the message from Pasternak and the reasons for why she had asked Venturi to do so. She told Feltrinelli that Pasternak had informed her about the contract he had signed with him and then conveyed to him that he should not trust any communication that was not in French. Here is the original text as it occurs in the draft

“Ne pouvant vs prevenir écrir directement il m’a chargée de vs écrire faire savoir prevenir que si vs recevez par hasard une lettre de lui qui ne soit pas rédigée dans en français de n’en tenir aucune compte. [[…]] Tout ceci pour des raisons [sans doute] que je ne voudrais vous expliquer par lettre.” (Peltier archive, Sylvanès)

She then went on to ask some questions about Feltrinelli’s publishing plans and in particular whether he intended to publish the Russian text. Finally, she added that Pasternak had put her in charge of the destiny of his work in France. In a separate post I will explore the complex tangle of issues that emerged between Peltier, Feltrinelli, Gallimard, and later de Proyart, on account of Pasternak’s attempt to free the French edition of the novel from Feltrinelli’s control. Here I will only remark that the last part of Peltier’s letter would certainly have worried Feltrinelli, for it might have challenged his contractual rights to all the foreign translations. He replied to Peltier on November 20, 1956:

M.lle HELENE PELTIER 6, rue des Demoiselles, TOULOUSE

Dear Miss, I have just received one day after the other your note and your letter of 17 November. I thank you for them. I understand the situation. The book is already being translated and several foreign publishers have already shown their interest. When a final decision will be taken, I will propose your name for the French translation. For the moment, it is out of the question to talk about this with anyone except those persons who are already in the know. This would otherwise block the path to an amiable solution to the problems, a solution which I still hope to be able to achieve. With warmest regards, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Please do excuse my bad French but in this case it is only appropriate that I should write in this language. (Peltier archive, Sylvanès; original in French)

It is quite possible that Peltier’s final letter (as opposed to the draft) was more explicit about some of the issues involved and this would explain why Feltrinelli speaks about an “amiable solution to the problems”. What remains to ascertain is who was Venturi’s friend. The final piece in the link has been available since 1999. The person who brought the message to Feltrinelli was Leo Valiani (1909-1999). In a letter from Valiani to Venturi, dated November 23, 1956, Valiani wrote to Venturi:

I have given to Feltrinelli –who was extremely happy about it– the message from Peltier and I would be grateful if you could convey my name to her immediately. I imagine that Feltrinelli will thank her while mentioning that it was through me that he received the message. (in L. Valiani – F. Venturi, Lettere 1943-1979, a cura di Edoardo Tortarolo, Firenze, La Nuova Italia, 1999, p. 218; original in Italian)

It is unclear why Valiani wanted to be mentioned to Peltier but neither Venturi nor Feltrinelli mentioned his name to Peltier. Let me conclude this post by mentioning that Peltier was to remain the main contact point for Pasternak in France until Jacqueline de Proyart’s visit to Peredelkino in early 1957. During this period Peltier took seriously Pasternak’s request to start looking for a publisher in France and was in touch with Rocher, Fasquelle, and Gallimard. They all showed great interest but the story of the publication in France was sealed when de Proyart came back from Moscow in February 1957 and Gallimard became the publisher of choice for the French translation.


Pasternak, El. e Pasternak, Ev., 1997, Perepiska Borisa Pasternaka s Elen Pel’t’e-Zamoiskoi, “Znamia”, 1, pp. 107-143. [“The correspondence between Boris Pasternak and Hélène Peltier”.]

Rapport sur l’enseignement du français en U.R.S.S. (compte-rendu du voyage effectué en URSS en automne 1956 par Mademoiselle H. PELTIER, professeur agrégé de russe), late 1956 or 1957, unpublished, Peltier archive, Sylvanès.