Oliver Kamm

Proust’s Jewish identity is too often overlooked

His themes are a prism through which we can understand European Jewry’s recent history

February 18, 2021 15:14

At the end of the 19th century, French public life was convulsed by the Dreyfus affair. The trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, an army officer, on bogus charges of treason exposed a deep vein of antisemitism. The novelist Emile Zola famously condemned this injustice with his open letter J’Accuse. And among those who lent their weight to Zola’s campaign was Marcel Proust. Indeed, in a letter at the end of his life, Proust proudly recalled that he was the first of the “Dreyfusards”.

Proust is the greatest of French modernist writers and a giant of world literature. Yet our knowledge of him remains frustratingly partial. He published almost nothing in his lifetime save for a single work, the voluminous novel A la Recherche du temps perdu (titled in English either Remembrance of Things Past, in a famous translation by CK Scott Moncrieff, or more literally In Search of Lost Time, in a more recent translation by DJ Enright).

The Times reported this week that a manuscript by Proust titled 75 Leaves, which had long been thought lost, has serendipitously been discovered among the belongings of his late publisher Bernard de Fallois. It is a literary finding of the first importance. And it may increase our understanding of a writer whose Jewish identity is often overlooked and ought to be better known. Proust’s themes are indeed a prism through which to understand the fate of European Jewry in the 20th century.

Proust was raised a Catholic but his mother, Jeanne Weil, was Jewish. The bond between them was intense and Weil’s death in 1905, when Proust was 36, marked the beginning of his retreat into seclusion. It cannot have escaped Proust in these years that, owing to her Jewishness, his revered mother would have felt like a stranger in her own homeland as the prejudices engendered by the Dreyfus affair spread.

In 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated. Yet the poison of antisemitism had done its work. Proust wrote in dismay to a friend: “To think this could have happened in France and not among the apaches [a slang Parisian term for criminal gangs]. The contrast that exists on the one hand between the culture, the intellectual distinction, and even the glitter of the uniforms of these people and their moral infamy is frightening.”

He was right, of course. The combination of his respect for the faith of his mother (the Weil family had deep roots in the Jewish community of Alsace) and his passion for justice was prophetic. Europe was devastated within 40 years by a fanatical campaign of persecution and genocide against the Jews. In those years in France, the collaborationist Vichy regime played a central role.

Proust’s art, and not only his personal history, illuminates Jewish identity in the modern age. Reading A la Recherche, in its seven volumes, is a huge undertaking but an incomparably rewarding one. And despite notorious longueurs such as a 100-page digression on whether the narrator, Marcel, should get up or stay in bed, it bears sticking with the novel to the end. Its most famous passage, in the first volume, Swann’s Way, describes how the taste of a madeleine biscuit dipped in tea awakens a sense of joy due to the involuntary unlocking of memory. Proust is obsessed with the passage of time. And as the novel progresses, the narrator pieces together the clues of his past.

For Jews, the theme is especially poignant. The ranks of the survivors of the Nazis’ efforts to extirpate Jewry from history are dwindling and will inevitably pass from this world completely within a few years. The memory of them, and their memory of suffering unparalleled in modern times, must live. Proust’s fascination with time illuminates the responsibilities of those of us who live on, and have known only the comforts and protections of free societies. For Proust, the great tragedy of life is the loss of the past. The recovery of memory shows, however, the possibility of redemption. Proust’s themes are central to the Jewish condition as the horrors experienced by our forebears recede from living memory. We should read of him what we can, in an oeuvre that is now expanded.

February 18, 2021 15:14

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