Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French novelist and essayist best known for his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time (earlier called Remembrance of Things Past), a monumental seven-volume novel universally regarded as one of the seminal achievements in world literature.
Although the setting of In Search of Lost Time is the aristocratic circles of late 19th-century France, it continues to resonate because of its timeless themes, including the meaning of love, the emotional parameters of time and memory, the nature and consequences of social ambition, the perception and development of sagacity, and the genesis of artistic consciousness and achievement.
Moreover, as we shall see, there is an argument to be made that Lost Time is a “Jewish novel” in that many of its most important characters are Jews; it illuminates the position of Jews in the early French Third Republic; and it raises issues of broad contemporary Jewish interest, including assimilation and integration, social achievement, and the Jewish place in a secular world.
Proust’s encyclopedic work (which is more than 3,000 pages) is marked by the comprehensive explorations of thoughts and emotions by an unknown first-person narrator named “Marcel,” who is essentially an alter ego of the author himself, though the line between author and narrator is sometimes confusing. (Interestingly, one difference between Proust’s narrator and himself is that the fictional protagonist has no Jewish parent.)
Marcel gains meaningful insights into his life and his consciousness even through seemingly mundane events. One legacy of Proust’s oeuvre is the term “Proustian experience,” which has entered the lexicon to refer to sudden wisps of memory.
In many instances, however, the narrator, concluding that the complexity of human nature is not always knowable, leaves certain questions and mysteries unresolved. He realizes that full human understanding is unattainable but, ever determined to uncover the mysterious and unknown sources of emotion, comes to understand that life cannot be evaluated in a vacuum and that knowing himself rests in significant part in analyzing his relationships with others, including particularly the worldly, cultivated, and charming Charles Swann, a Jewish character who plays a leading role in the novel.
Proust’s father, Adrien, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist who, though he studied cholera in Europe and Asia and published widely on medicine and hygiene, did not rise to the heights of French society until his marriage to Jeanne, a wealthy Jewish heiress and the daughter of a Jewish banker. Though intermarried, Jeanne never converted and always remained attached to her Jewish family.
Under the accepted social convention of the time, the terms of their mixed marriage were understood: Jeanne would not be required to convert to Christianity nor, in deference to her parents, was she given a Christian burial; however, the children would be baptized and raised as Christians.
Although Proust was baptized and was later confirmed, he never formally practiced Christianity and, always manifesting a deep spiritual attachment to his Jewish mother and grandmother, was unable to disregard entirely their Jewish heritage. His passionate devotion to his mother was such that in an opening scene in Swann’s Way, he explains his thoughts and feelings while longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss which, when it fails to come, causes him anguish and becomes a metaphor for unrequited love, a major theme of the novel.
Manifesting his characteristic reflection and self-contemplation, Proust was always aware of his irreconcilable religious duality, which finds expression throughout his work; as he writes in Lost Time, “The question is not as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong.”
He read the Zohar and frequently made observations and employed language in Lost Time that can only be characterized as Jewish-mystical, including when describing the beauty of Venice and its magnificent cathedrals – a fascination of our narrator throughout the novel. His numerous Jewish references in the novel evidence the far-reaching effect of his Judaism on him, and he makes frequent textual references to the Old Testament, which he interprets through his own emotional sensitivities.
In Search of Lost Time – which some commentators contend is designed and built like the Talmud – is replete with Jewish references. For example, there are at least 10 mentions of Queen Esther, seen as the embodiment of a Jew living in two different worlds due to her of intermarriage with Achashverosh. (Proust certainly had no inkling of the various midrashim on this subject.)
He once described his cherished mother by referring to “the beautiful lines of her Jewish face, completely marked with Christian sweetness and Jansenist resignation, turning her into Esther herself.” Much like Esther, who publicly concealed her Jewish identity, Proust generally strived to obscure his Jewish ancestry so as not to jeopardize the relationships with the aristocratic friends he had so assiduously cultivated.
Other Jewish references in Lost Time include a Shabbat luncheon where a Jewish character is highly amused by the arrival of a visitor who is wholly unaware of the day’s “special customs”; a reference to “ancient laws” that forbid “simmering the kid in his mother’s milk” or eating “the sinew which is upon the hollow of the thigh”; and a request, consistent with Jewish ritual, for no flowers or wreaths as the narrator’s grandmother lay dying.
It is fascinating to consider suggestions by commentators that Proust was a Jewish anti-Semite. His early life is replete with interactions with anti-Semites; as an adolescent, he grew up in the shadow of an anti-Semitic church and had friends who were Jew-haters; and as an adult, he socialized with the upper elite of French society, who loathed Jews.
He desired status, prestige, and, above all, to be seen as a respected Christian gentleman and, as such, it is not surprising that he frequently echoed their positions. Until the Dreyfus Affair, which will be discussed below, he feared the adverse social repercussions that would likely arise were he to stand up to anti-Semitism in any meaningful way.
Proust referred to Zionists as “Sodomites” and, more significantly, he described many of his Jewish characters using anti-Semitic stereotypes, including notably Swann, who perhaps best reflects both the complexities and contradictions of Proust’s attitude toward his own Jewish origins.
In the exceedingly rare circa 1913 correspondence from my collection exhibited here, Proust refers to Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. He writes in French to historian and essayist Georges Goyau commenting on the death of Goyau’s wife, Lucie Félix-Faure (Goyau had apparently sent Proust a photo of his wife and some religious mementos):
I have just been very ill and you will excuse me to tell you in one simple word, thank-you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the noble and holy image, and the remarks that are as if she were alive. … I will keep and often visit these dear relics. I will send you very soon my book [Swann’s Way] where you will recognize episodes of my childhood that she knew so well. I only have sufficient force to press your hand from all my heart and transferring all my affection for her so naturally toward you.
The wealthy, erudite, and refined Lucie Faure-Goyau (1866-1913) was the daughter of French President Félix Faure and a lifelong friend of Proust who almost married him before she went on to wed Goyau. A Catholic feminist, she founded the Fraternal League of the Children of France; traveled extensively, including to Eretz Yisrael, writing detailed memoirs of her journeys; and published poetry and several books on religion.
Swann’s Way, the first of seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, begins with the narrator’s recollection of Charles Swann, a family friend whom he knew well as a child. (“Swann’s way” is Proust’s term for the nouveau riche, the “way” of the ascent of some Jews into the French luxury class.)
Beginning with his imaginative reconstruction of Swann’s love affair, the narrator/Proust gains insight into his life and the nature of love. Through an exhaustive analysis of Swann’s life and prominence, he learns that class is not immutable and that one may move up or down in social caste; thus, says the narrator, our “social personality is a creation of the minds of others.”
Swann – the embodiment of the Jew-by-genealogy (he had one Jewish grandparent) who consorts with the aristocracy – epitomizes Proust’s personification of contemporary Jewish social success. His inspiration for the character was two Jews: Charles Haas, a wealthy, suave, and clever Jew who, as a member of the ultra-exclusive Jockey Club, was known for his fellowships with nobility, and Charles Ephrussi (an Ashkenazi rendition of “Ephrati”), a member of a family of international bankers who competed with the Rothschilds.
Proust inexplicably uses Jewish caricatures and anti-Semitic language in his rendering of Swann as a Jew. For example, in describing his final visit to a declining Swann, whose face had been disfigured by illness, the narrator focuses on Swann’s nose, which has become “enormous, tumid, crimson… fit for an old Hebrew.”
Similarly, he commonly employed vicious anti-Semitic tropes in expressing contempt for “the unassimilated Jews,” including particularly Albert Bloch, Proust’s schoolmate and an unambiguously Jewish character. In Proust’s portrayal, Bloch, though brilliant, regularly exhibits a total lack of social awareness and grace and is the very caricature of the uncouth and pushy ill-mannered Jew. Here again, Proust seems to be obsessed with Jewish noses: “his Jewish nose was now scarcely more visible than is the deformity of a hunchbacked woman who skillfully arranges her appearance.”
Proust dedicated The Guermantes Way, volume three of In Search of Lost Time, to Léon Daudet, a long-standing publicist friend who was a vociferous anti-Semite. Léon’s father was novelist Alphonse Daudet, who funded Edouard Drumont’s notorious and despicable anti-Semitic newspaper, La Libre Parole, and Proust sat silently and passively at many dinners at the Daudet estate during which the entire family regularly engaged in vicious anti-Semitic tirades. As one commentator cogently put it, “Marcel had fallen in, not for the last time, with some of the most distinguished Jew-haters in all of Europe.”
But, on the other hand, Proust also maintained a wide circle of Jewish friends, and many of his most intimate and open associations were with Jews, including the Bizet family, Léon Blum, the Halévy brothers, and Sidney Schiff. Thus, other commentators argue that Proust was not some diffident ghetto Jew living in constant fear of being seen as a Jew and thereby losing his status amongst the elites of Christian society.
Indeed, when his literary mentor, the Comte Robert de Montesquiou, voiced anti-Semitic views at a dinner, Proust responded with a letter that his mother was Jewish and that he would not accept any such future statements. At his mother’s funeral, he stood up before the high gentile gentry of Paris and insisted that the Kaddish be recited in her memory, and he later regretted that his illness precluded him from visiting her cemetery and placing a memorial pebble atop her gravestone, as per Jewish tradition.
When La Libre Parole referred to him as a Jewish writer who typified Jewish indecency, Proust resisted the urge to respond that he was, in fact, a baptized Christian. In a later correspondence, he wrote: “to correct the story, I would have had to say that I was not Jewish and did not want to be” – but he could not deny his Jewish side. And he unabashedly challenged anti-Semitic characters in Lost Time, expressing moral scorn for them.
Moreover, Proust, who personally attended the trial of Emile Zola after the publication of J’Accuse, was one of the earliest and most zealous supporters of Alfred Dreyfus. He proudly referred to himself as “the first Dreyfusard” and, among other pro-Dreyfus activities, led a petition campaign for a retrial after Dreyfus’ wrongful and fraudulent conviction.
In audaciously and publicly defending Dreyfus, Proust alienated the officials of the realm, the French military establishment, the French aristocracy, the conservative Catholics, and his own father.
Proust used the Dreyfus Affair – which unfolded in real time as he wrote the final half of Lost Time – as an important lens through which to view the moral integrity of his characters. Marcel (Proust’s narrator) is an equally passionate Dreyfus supporter, as are Bloch and Swann, whose Jewishness and its role in the Dreyfus Affair, the preeminent political and social issue of Proust’s time, become a fundamental focus of volume six (“Sodom and Gomorrah”) of Lost Time.
At the end of his life, an ailing Swann openly expresses his revulsion for the anti-Semitic aristocracy in which he had lived his entire adult life. As Proust describes it, Swann demonstrates “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.”
Swann’s moral and ethical stance, however, comes at a great price: Formerly the darling of the bourgeoisie, he is shunned by his former friends, not only for supporting Dreyfus, but for being a Jew, a development that both haunts and infuriates Proust.
Sadly, Proust had a very challenging life. He had asthma as a young child and suffered from the disease his entire life; he had to personally finance the publication of Swann’s Way after it was rejected by every publisher to whom he submitted it, with the final three volumes of Lost Time published posthumously; and he died alone and unappreciated before he could enjoy the success of his novel and the fame it generated.