I have to admit – I have not read Proust. So what follows is my quick research on a fascinating figure, perhaps the greatest French writer. As a Messianic Jew I feel both the attraction and repulsion that comes from understanding the man and his times, and I have yet to be lured into the flow of his writing. But he seems to me to embody the dilemmas and contradictions of Jewish and Christian identity, even without faith in God, of which we as Messianic Jews today are both the inheritors and practitioners in our own time.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the talents and work of Marcel Proust. Despite, or even because of his conflicted identity, he produced great literature, telling the story of life and searching its meaning through his indefatigable prose. May the mystery of our life’s meaning be open to you and to all to see, and may it reflect your love for Israel and through all humanity, through our Messiah Yeshua. Amen.
Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past). He is considered by many to be one of the greatest authors of all time.
The novel was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Proust’s novels continue in their influence on contemporary culture and film with notable film productions including Time Regained featuring John Malkovich andSwann’s Way featuring Jeremy Irons.
Proust was born in Auteuil (the south-western sector of Paris’ then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle on 10 July 1871, two months after theTreaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. His birth took place during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponded with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much ofIn Search of Lost Time concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes that occurred in France during the Third Republic and the fin de siècle.
Proust’s father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, studying cholera in Europe and Asia. He was the author of numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace. Literate and well-read, her letters demonstrate a well-developed sense of humour, and her command of English was sufficient to help with her son’s translations of John Ruskin. Proust was raised in his father’s Catholic faith. He was baptized (on 5 August 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d’Antin) and later confirmed as a Catholic but he never formally practised that faith.
By the age of nine, Proust had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.)
In 1882, at the age of eleven, Proust became a pupil at Lycée Condorcet, but his education was disrupted by his illness. Despite this he excelled in literature, receiving an award in his final year. Thanks to his classmates, he was able to gain access to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie, providing him with copious material for In Search of Lost Time.
Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) enlisted in the French army, stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes’ Way, part three of his novel. As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a social climber whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of self-discipline. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an amateur, contributed to his later troubles with getting Swann’s Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913. At this time, he attended the salons of Mme Straus, widow of Georges Bizet and mother of Proust’s childhood friend Jacques Bizet, of Madeleine Lemaire and of Mme Arman de Caillavet, one of the models of Madame Verdurin, and mother of his friend Gaston Arman de Caillavet, with whose fiancée (Jeanne Pouquet) he was in love. It is through Mme Arman de Caillavet that he made the acquaintance of Anatole France, her lover.
In an 1892 article published in Le Banquet entitled “L’Irréligion d’État” and again in a 1904 Le Figaro article entitled “La mort des cathédrales”, Proust argued against theseparation of church and state, declaring that socialism posed a greater threat to society than the Church and emphasizing the latter’s role in sustaining a cultural and educational tradition.
Proust had a close relationship with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at Bibliothèque Mazarinein the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he obtained a sick leave that extended for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at his job, and he did not move from his parents’ apartment until after both were dead.
Proust, who was a closeted homosexual, was one of the first European novelists to feature homosexuality openly and at length, in the parts of À la recherche du temps perdu which deal with the Baron de Charlus. Lucien Daudet and Reynaldo Hahn were noted to be his lovers.
His life and family circle changed markedly between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust’s brother Robert married and left the family home. His father died in November of the same year. Finally, and most crushingly, Proust’s beloved mother died in September 1905. She left him a considerable inheritance. His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate.
Proust spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Proust: Jew, Jewish-hater or both?
The great French writer’s vacillating attitude toward his Jewish origins is reflected in the character of his protagonist.
By Lena Shilony | Dec. 27, 2013 | 1:00 PM
This was the year of Marcel Proust in the literary world. The centenary of the publication of the first part of “In Search of Lost Time” (formerly translated as “Remembrance of Things Past”) was marked by a plethora of articles, conferences, exhibitions and public readings of the highly influential work. So enshrined is Proust’s status today that it’s hard to believe the process of his acceptance was far from simple.
In fact, he paid out of his own pocket for the first volume of his novel t o be published. Legend has it that André Gide, the reader for the distinguished Gallimard publishing house, didn’t even bother to open the manuscript of a man who had the reputation of being a frivolous dilettante and snob.
Even after the publication of the first volumes, enthusiasm was markedly greater abroad (Virginia Woolf and Walter Benjamin were ardent readers) than in France. Daniel Mornet, a professor of literature at the Sorbonne in the 1920s and wrote a survey of contemporary writers, listed Proust as one of the novelists of the time. Apart from Proust, to whom Mornet devoted half a page, all the other writers he mentioned were destined to be forgotten. He labeled Proust an original and strange writer who displayed “oriental inspiration.” That, of course, was an allusion to Proust’s Jewish origins.
Proust, who was born in 1871 and died in 1922, can be seen as the last great French writer of the 19th century and the first revolutionary writer of the 20th. His father, Adrien Proust, was a physician from a humble rural background who enjoyed a career as a professor of medicine. His social rise was abetted by his marriage to a wealthy heiress, Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a Jewish banker.
The second half of the 19th century in France was marked by the success of the country’s Jews, notably in finance and banking, though also in culture (Jacques Offenbach in music; Sarah Bernhardt in the theater) and politics (Adolphe Crémieux, a distant relative of Proust’s, thanks to whom French citizenship was granted to the Jews of Algeria). The Jews’ success generated anti-Semitic reactions whose peak came in the Dreyfus affair in the century’s last decade.
At the time Proust’s parents met, rich Jewish brides – like American heiresses – were a coveted commodity in the marriage market. Weil acquired an entry ticket to French society and her husband improved his economic status. The terms, imposed by social convention, are clear: The children would be raised as Christians – and indeed, Marcel and his younger brother Robert were both baptized. Their mother did not convert to Christianity nor given a Christian burial “in deference to her parents,” as Proust noted. From the Jewish standpoint, Proust remained a Jew; from a Christian perspective, because baptism is an irrevocable sacrament, he was and remained a Catholic.
Proust, with his acute sensitivity, was aware of this duality. He belonged to the two religions and to neither of them, and remained on their margins. Many of the Jews who appear in his work, such as his schoolmate Bloch or Bloch’s relatives, are described with the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes. As an adolescent, Proust had friends who were Jew-haters; as an adult, he hobnobbed with members of the French upper class who despised Jews, and frequently adopted their point of view. He spent his childhood vacations in a deeply rooted French milieu, in the shadow of the church in the village of Illiers (transformed into Combray, the subject of the first book), where members of his father’s family, such as Aunt Leonie, still lived. Village life allowed the young Parisian to get a taste of traditional Christian France, the seasonal cycle and rituals, which charmed him.
However, Proust was also a devoted son to his mother and grandmother, and could not ignore their Jewish heritage. Of his mother’s letters, only one that mentions a Jewish detail has been preserved. Marcel, who lived with his parents until the age of 34, broke a cup made of Venetian glass in a fit of anger. He sent a written apology and his mother replied, “Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple – the symbol of an indissoluble union.”
The relationship between mother and sickly son was indeed symbiotic. Because of his desire not to hurt her, Proust only began to write and publish his monumental work after her death. She was thus spared exposure to the novel’s many homosexual descriptions.
In one famous passage, Proust draws a comparison between two persecuted minorities: the Jews and homosexuals. The character who reflects most succinctly the complexity and ambivalence that marked Proust’s attitude toward his Jewish origins is his protagonist, Charles Swann. He gives his name to the first volume of “In Search of Lost Time,” which is titled “Swann’s Way”; its second section is called “Swann in Love” (“Un amour de Swann”).
Let us pause to consider the name of the person who is a friend of the narrator’s parents and is present in his life for many years. Swann sounds at first like an English name, though the name of the bird has only one n. Nor is it a German swan – schwan – a name that a Jew might be expected to have (many French Jews had German names because of their origins in Alsace).
The combination of the first two letters of the name Swann cannot be French, so his name already hints at his outsiderness and hybrid origins. How do we know he is Jewish? Proust provides this information in an incidental manner, in a parenthetical sentence, as he often does. In the principal sentence, the narrator notes that his grandfather does not like his Jewish friends, then adds that the grandfather actually has a Jewish friend, namely Swann. In the course of decades, until his final appearance during the period of the Dreyfus affair, Swann symbolizes the height of French Jewry’s social success. He socializes with princes and dukes, and is welcomed in high-society salons.
Proust drew his inspiration for Swann from two men named Charles. One was Charles Haas, a rich Jew who was a member of the ultra-exclusive Jockey Club and known for fraternizing with the aristocracy. The other was Charles Ephrussi (who plays a prominent role in Edmund de Waal’s splendid book “The Hare with Amber Eyes”). Ephrussi (an Ashkenazi reading of the name Ephrati) came from a family of international bankers that competed with the Rothschilds. As his brother managed the business, Charles turned to art and became a well-known collector, a friend of Impressionist painters and the editor of an art journal. Seemingly, Swann owes his love of art to Charles Ephrussi.
Charles Swann, with all his complexity, is also Proust, who frequents the salons of aristocratic ladies, is vexed over the Jewish issue and is fond of art in a variety of forms: painting, music, theater and architecture. Like Swann, Proust, too, experienced love as sickness and suffering. Swann dreams of writing a book about the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer, but devotes his days to the vanities of this world. He dies with his passion to lend meaning to his life through creative work still beyond his reach. That was also Proust’s nightmare – that the vacuous social life that took up his time would prevent him from completing his artistic mission. Vermeer was also Proust’s great love, in a period when the brilliant Dutch painter was barely known.
In a famous scene from the book, Proust brings his hero, the writer Bergotte, to an art exhibition. Bergotte examines Vermeer’s painting “View of Delft,” mumbles, “That’s how I ought to have written,” then collapses and dies opposite the painting. However, it is not Vermeer but a different painter who plays an important role in “Swann in Love,” which tells of Swann’s passion for a frivolous courtesan, Odette de Crécy. In their first meeting, Swann is not impressed by the woman who will soon infatuate him. The passion is ignited when Swann, an art lover, discovers a resemblance between Odette and a figure in a Botticelli painting. Proust is not referring to the painter’s famous figures, such as Venus or La Primavera, but to the representation of Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, as she appears with her sisters by the well in a lesser known series by Botticelli, “The Life of Moses.” The resemblance will transform Swann’s love into an obsession. He will marry Odette and discover, in the last line of “Swann in Love,” that he wasted his life with a woman who “wasn’t even my type.”
We will allow ourselves to extend the comparison: if Odette resembles Zipporah, then Swann resembles Moses. In the biblical episode, shepherds drive off Jethro’s daughters as they draw water from the well, and Moses protects them. They invite him to the house of their father, who is a priest of Midian. Introducing him, they explain, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds.” Moses does not protest: at this stage of his life, it is convenient for him to appear as an Egyptian, as it is convenient for Swann to appear as a “Frenchman.”
A midrash about the death of Moses harks back to this event. Weeping, Moses asks why he will not be permitted to enter Canaan. God’s reply – “Because you turned away” – alludes to Moses’ attempt to deny his origins. For Moses this was a one-time blunder; for Swann it continues until his last days.
At the end of the 19th century, the Dreyfus affair shook and split French society. The establishment, the Church, the army and the upper classes all aligned themselves against the traitor-Jew Alfred Dreyfus. Even those who were uncertain about Dreyfus’ guilt argued, like one of the protagonists of the writer François Mauriac, “For one wretched Jew is it permissible to harm the army?” Proust backed Dreyfus, even though this ran contrary to the general view in the salons he frequented.
In an early novel, “Jean Santeuil” (published posthumously), Proust describes the court sessions at which he was present. Swann’s final appearance in “In Search of Lost Time,” in the fourth volume, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (sometimes translated as “Cities of the Plain”), takes the Dreyfus affair as its hinge. The conversations in the salon of the Guermantes family naturally deal with the affair, and the speakers are taken aback when their friend Swann, whom they have known as a highly educated individual who loves art, turns out to be a supporter of Dreyfus.
In passage that is at once bizarre, tragic and grotesque, Proust describes the last visit of the ailing Swann in the salon in which he had spent so many hours. Disease has contorted his face, and Proust’s portrayal of him focuses, like an anti-Semitic caricature, on his nose. Swann’s nose has become “enormous, tumid, crimson,” fit for a clown or “an old Hebrew.” What has caused this? There are various causes, physical and mental, which the author lists without deciding among them. The primary cause is the disease, but it is possible that in the last days of the Jew Swann, racial features stand out more prominently (Proust uses the accepted term “la race”). There is also another possible reason. Together with the characteristic facial features, the dying man displays “a sense of moral solidarity with the rest of the Jews, a solidarity which Swann seemed to have forgotten throughout his life and which, one after another, his mortal illness, the Dreyfus case and the anti-Semitic propaganda had reawakened.”
That would have been enough to encapsulate the ambivalence of the character, but Proust adds two peculiar sentences. Certain Jews, he writes, who are refined and socially sophisticated, are sometimes revealed in their last hours as one of two opposite types: “a cad and a prophet.” Swann, Proust observes, “had arrived at the age of the prophet.” Swann-Moses no longer disavowed his origins, but was not privileged to enter the promised land of the creative work.
Note: Proust quotations from the Modern Library edition of “In Search of Lost Time,” translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by DJ Enright.
From Edmund White
“Marcel Proust was the son of a Christian father and a Jewish mother. He himself was baptized (on August 5, 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d’Antin) and later confirmed as a Catholic, but he never practiced that faith and as an adult could best be described as a mystical atheist, someone imbued with spirituality who nonetheless did not believe in a personal God, much less in a savior.
Although Jews trace their religion through their mothers, Proust never considered himself Jewish and even became vexed when a newspaper article listed him as a Jewish author. His father once warned him not to stay in a certain hotel since there were “too many” Jewish guests there, and, to be sure, in Remembrance of Things Past there are unflattering caricatures of the members of one Jewish family, the Blochs. Jews were still considered exotic, even “oriental,” in France; in 1872 there were only eighty-six thousand Jews in the whole country.
In a typically offensive passage Proust writes that in a French drawing room “a Jew making his entry as though he were emerging from the desert, his body crouching like a hyena’s, his neck thrust forward, offering profound `salaams,’ completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental.”
Proust never refers to his Jewish origins in his fiction, although in the youthful novel he abandoned, Jean Santeuil (first published only in 1952, thirty years after his death), there is a very striking, if buried, reference to Judaism. The autobiographical hero has quarreled with his parents and in his rage deliberately smashed a piece of delicate Venetian glass his mother had given him. When he and his mother are reconciled, he tells her what he has done: “He expected that she would scold him, and so revive in his mind the memory of their quarrel. But there was no cloud upon her tenderness. She gave him a kiss, and whispered in his ear: `It shall be, as in the Temple, the symbol of an indestructible union.'” This reference to the rite of smashing a glass during the Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony, in this case sealing the marriage of mother to son, is not only spontaneous but chilling.
In an essay about his mother he referred, with characteristic ambiguity, to “the beautiful lines of her Jewish face, completely marked with Christian sweetness and Jansenist resignation, turning her into Esther herself”–a reference, significantly, to the heroine of the Old Testament (and of Racine’s play), who concealed her Jewish identity until she had become the wife of King Ahasuerus and was in a position to save her people.
The apparently gentile Proust, who had campaigned for Dreyfus and had been baptized Catholic, was a sort of modern Esther. Despite Proust’s silences and lapses on the subject of his mother’s religion, it would be unfair, especially in light of the rampant anti-Semitism of turn-of-the-century France, to say that he was unique or even extreme in his prejudice against Jews. And yet his anti-Semitism is more than curious, given his love for his mother and given, after her death, something very much like a religious cult that he developed around her. His mother, out of respect for her parents, had remained faithful to their religion, and Proust revered her and her relatives; after her death he regretted that he was too ill to visit her grave and the graves of her parents and uncle in the Jewish cemetery and to mark each visit with a stone.
More important, although he had many friends among the aristocracy whom he had assiduously cultivated, nevertheless when he was forced to take sides during the Dreyfus Affair, which had begun in 1894 and erupted in 1898, he chose to sign a petition prominently printed in a newspaper calling for a retrial.
The Dreyfus Affair is worth a short detour, since it split French society for many years and it became a major topic in proust’s life–and in Remembrance of Things Past. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jew and a captain in the French army. In December 1894 he was condemned by a military court for having sold military secrets to the Germans and was sent for life to Devil’s Island. The accusation was based on the evidence of a memorandum stolen from the German embassy in Paris (despite the fact that the writing did not resemble Dreyfus’s) and of a dossier (which was kept classified and secret) handed over to the military court by the minister of war. In 1896 another French soldier, Major Georges Picquart, proved that the memorandum had been written not by Dreyfus but by a certain Major Marie Charles Esterhazy. Yet Esterhazy was acquitted and Picquart was imprisoned. Instantly a large part of the population called for a retrial of Dreyfus. On January 13, 1898, the writer Emile Zola published an open letter, “J’accuse,” directed against the army’s general staff; Zola was tried and found guilty of besmirching the reputation of the army. He was forced to flee to England. Then in September 1898 it was proved that the only piece of evidence against Dreyfus in the secret military dossier had been faked by Joseph Henry, who confessed his misdeed and committed suicide. At last the government ordered a retrial of Dreyfus. Public opinion was bitterly divided between the leftist Dreyfusards, who demanded “justice and truth,” and the anti-Dreyfusards, who led an anti-Semitic campaign, defended the honor of the army, and rejected the call for a retrial. The conflict led to a virtual civil war. In 1899 Dreyfus was found guilty again, although this time under extenuating circumstances–and the president pardoned him. Only in 1906 was Dreyfus fully rehabilitated, named an officer once again, and decorated with the Legion of Honor. Interestingly, Theodor Herzl, the Paris correspondent for a Viennese newspaper, was so overwhelmed by the virulent anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair that he was inspired by the prophetic idea of a Jewish state.
In defending Dreyfus, Proust not only angered conservative, Catholic, pro-army aristocrats, but he also alienated his own father. In writing about the 1890s in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust remarks that “the Dreyfus case was shortly to relegate the Jews to the lowest rung of the social ladder.” Typically, the ultraconservative Gustave Schlumberger, a great Byzantine scholar, could give in his posthumous memoirs as offensive a description of his old friend Charles Haas (a model for Proust’s character Swann) as this: “The delightful Charles Haas, the most likeable and glittering socialite, the best of friends, had nothing Jewish about him except his origins and was not afflicted, as far as I know, with any of the faults of his race, which makes him an exception virtually unique.” It would be misleading to suggest that Proust took his controversial, pro-Dreyfus stand simply because he was half-Jewish. No, he was only obeying the dictates of his conscience, even though he lost many highborn Catholic friends by doing so and exposed himself to the snide anti-Semitic accusation of merely automatically siding with his co-religionists