Jacqueline de Proyart (1927-2019)

It is with great sadness that I recently learned that Jacqueline de Proyart passed away in Paris on January 30. Jacqueline de Proyart was a French Slavic scholar who taught at Poitiers and Bordeaux. She was known, among other things, for her work on Pasternak and Chekhov. In addition, she played a central role in Boris Pasternak’s life.

I first got in contact with Jacqueline in January 2012. I wrote her an email in which I asked her a question concerning one of the Russian editions of Doctor Zhivago. Her answer ended up determining my subsequent engagement with the publication history of Doctor Zhivago. That first email led to more emails, then to a personal acquaintance, which in turn turned into a friendship. Jacqueline was a generous and noble spirit. Her friendship meant very much to me and my wife. All my research on Doctor Zhivago benefited enormously from her advise and support. And of course, she was also one of the main characters in the saga which is the subject of my books, namely the publication history of Doctor Zhivago and Boris Pasternak’s life. I shall miss her very much.

I would like to celebrate her memory by briefly recounting here how it happened that in February 1957 Boris Pasternak nominated Jacqueline de Proyart de Baillescourt, a young French countess whom he had recently met at the beginning of January in his dacha in Peredelkino, as his literary agent responsible for all decisions (‘literary, juridical, and pecuniary’) concerning his work and in particular entrusted her with the task of preparing and publishing the original text of the novel in Russian.

Jacqueline recounts the story of her first acquaintance with Boris Pasternak in the introduction to Pasternak 1994a. The year was 1956. In order to improve her Russian, she was sent by her professor, André Mazon, to Moscow. The official justification was developing contacts between the Tolstoy library/museum at the Institute of Slavic Studies in Paris, which she was in charge of, and the Tolstoy museums in Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana. In Paris, she had also studied with Pierre Pascal and Nina Lazarewa. Through the latter, she had been able to become familiar with the artistic sensibility of pre-revolutionary Russia, including its spiritual and religious aspects. She arrived in Moscow on November 23, 1956 (see below her “Propusk” dated November 22, 1956).

While attending courses at the State University of Moscow (MGU), she took time to explore Moscow and to realize that traces of the Russian sensibility she had been exposed to in Paris could still be found, hidden behind the ideological façade, in certain museums and institutions. One such place was the Scriabin Museum. She had in fact been invited for tea in a part of the museum that was restricted to “Scriabin’s friends”, a group of people “who shared the same spiritual values”. Given Pasternak’s deep connection to Scriabin – Pasternak was under his spell as a youth and even considered a career as a composer – it is perhaps not surprising to find out that “in this sanctuary, the name of Boris Pasternak was uttered with admiration and fervor” (Pasternak 1994a, p. 15). She was told she had to meet Pasternak, for otherwise her stay in Russia would be meaningless. When arriving in Moscow, Jacqueline did not even know whether Pasternak was dead or alive. What she knew about him went back to a lecture course by Roman Jakobson, which she attended in 1951 when she was a student at Harvard, and to a selection of verses (mainly from Lieutenant Schmidt and The Year 1905) contained in the anthology by Jacques David, Anthologie de la Poésie Russe, which had been published in the late 1940s. Little did she know that the meeting that was soon organized to allow her to meet the poet would change her life. She laid eyes on a typescript copy of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago for the first time at the Scriabin Museum in mid-December 1956. The copy had been promised to Dmitriĭ Ivanov, aka Jean Neuvecelle, and thus she could not have access to it immediately. To make up for the disappointment, a few friends from the circle took her to visit Pasternak on the evening of January 1, 1957.

The impression the poet made on her was immediate and “his warm tenderness soon had the better of my shyness” (Pasternak 1994a, p. 18). At the end of a sparkling evening, full of intellectual conversation, Jacqueline expressed her desire to read the novel. Pasternak asked Nikolaĭ Shatrov, one of the persons who had accompanied Jacqueline to see Pasternak, to fetch the copy that was still in Simonov’s hands, the very copy which had been used – but of course Jacqueline knew nothing about this – by the main editor of Novy mir when writing his negative report on the novel in September 1956. On the evening of January 2, 1957, she already had the first part of the novel. After one week, she already had enough information about the Italian translation –which was being prepared by the publisher Feltrinelli– to propose, on January 9, to act on Pasternak’s behalf in arranging for a French translation with Gallimard. The names of Hélène Peltier, Michel Aucouturier, and Louis Martinez also came up, and it turned out that Pasternak was already familiar with them (he did not reveal at this stage that he had already given a copy of the novel to Peltier). Pasternak also showed her the contract he had signed with Feltrinelli.  Pasternak gave de Proyart the second part of the novel on January 16 and 17, and on those dates he gave her “the rights for publishing and translating abroad the Autobiographical Essay, since no contract tied Pasternak to Feltrinelli for this work” (p. 23).

On January 17, Pasternak wrote a letter to Hélène Peltier (on Peltier see Mancosu 2016) where he said:

I want that every choice, every initiative, all the rights concerning the handling abroad (not only in France) of the affairs related to my writings, including the edition of the original Russian text, be concentrated only in your hands and in those of Madame de Proyart, for your exclusive profit, without any deduction, of which I have no need whatsoever. (Pasternak 1994a, p. 63.)

On February 6, 1957, Pasternak wrote to Peltier:

I am leaving the previous letter unfinished. Jacqueline is leaving, and I am rushing. Here it is in brief. I am burdening madame de Proyart with a power of attorney, which would be desired of you as well. Questions of danger, carefulness, etc. are a complete philosophy, mind- numbing and with the ability to break your heart as well as mine. For example, if Mr. Michel Aucouturier (please send him my warmest greetings) does not mention my novel in his article in “Esprit” [March 1957]—which, quite likely, would be a sensible thing to do—what else is left of me at all? Is it not logical, that for the joy of writing the novel, I must pay, risking and putting myself in danger! Do not forget the thing that I told you. I am not dictating anything and am not suggesting anything. I would like for you and Jacqueline to do things in complete independence, in accordance with your own thoughts and inherent courage. And I thank you, endlessly thank you. Glory to you!

By the time Jacqueline left Moscow on February 8, Pasternak had given her a corrected version of Doctor Zhivago, which improved on the copy that had been sent to Feltrinelli in May 1956, a copy of the Autobiography, and a mandate nominating her as his representative. Lack of communication with Feltrinelli, who discovered the real nature of Pasternak’s mandates on her behalf only in January 1959, and the lack of clarity in the mandates themselves (as Jacqueline herself admitted), was at the core of the troubles that followed.

When Jacqueline returned to France she brought with her a letter, dated February 6, 1957, addressed to Gallimard in which Pasternak asked Gallimard to “have faith in Madame Jacqueline de Proyart as my representative in all business matters of a literary, juridical, and financial nature that could arise between your publishing house and me. I give her full power and I authorize her to replace me abroad in an unlimited way until the complete forgetfulness of my person.” (For a photographic reproduction of the original document in French, see Pasternak 1994b.) While this document had little effect on the destiny of Zhivago in France, it will by contrast be quite relevant for the autobiography and for other issues that led later to a stormy relation between Feltrinelli and de Proyart (Mancosu 2013).

Well, the rest is history, as one says. Jacqueline corresponded extensively with Pasternak (Pasternak’s side of the correspondence is published in Pasternak 1994a); she was one of the translators of Doctor Zhivago into French; she wrote the preface for one of the volumes of the 1961 Michigan edition of Pasternak’s Works; she was Pasternak’s representative in the West in 1959 and 1960; she prepared the revised edition of the Russian text of Doctor Zhivago published by Michigan in 1967, and she published extensively on him. In addition to Pasternak 1994a and Pasternak 1994b, Jacqueline’s long involvement with Pasternak is recounted in detail in Mancosu 2013, 2016, and 2019, to which we refer the reader.


De Proyart, J. (1964), Pasternak, Gallimard, Paris.

De Proyart, J. (1985), Études sur la littérature Russe du Moyen-Âge à nos jours et sur l’histoire de la Russie sous le règne d’Alexandre III, Thèse d’État, Université de Bordeaux III.

De Proyart, J. (2005), Brice Parain et Boris Pasternak, in Besseyre, M., Brice Parain. Un Homme de Parole, Gallimard/BnF, Paris, 2005, 189-196.

Mancosu, P. (2013), Inside the Zhivago Storm. The Editorial Adventures of Pasternak’s Masterpiece, Feltrinelli, Milan.

Mancosu, P., (2016), Zhivago’s Secret Journey: from typescript to book, Hoover Press, Stanford.

Mancosu, P. (2019), Moscow has Ears Everywhere. New Investigations on Pasternak and Ivinskaya, Hoover Press, Stanford.

Pasternak, B.(1958), Le Docteur Jivago, Gallimard, Paris.

Pasternak, B. (1967), Doktor Zhivago: s poslednimi popravkami avtora, Rev. and corr. by Jacqueline de Proyart, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, third printing, [Doctor Zhivago: with final corrections by the author.]

Pasternak, B. (1994a), Lettres à mes amies françaises. 1956-1960, Introduction et Notes de Jacqueline de Proyart, Gallimard, Paris.

Pasternak, B. (1994b), Le Dossier de l’Affaire Pasternak. Archives du Comité Central et du Politburo, Préface de Jacqueline de Proyart, Gallimard, Paris.