A book on Proust’s Judaism and anti-Semitism in France

When Saul Friedländer published his article on Proust two years ago, about what shocked him when he read The Search, The Search for Lost Time, himself the son of Jewish parents and Holocaust survivors, he naturally vexed the Jews in Proust. And his work.

In particular, the narrator’s “chain of unpleasant observations” about the physical and Jewish traits of one of the central characters in “The Search”, von Bloch, the narrator’s friend, was a thorn in his side, especially the two-compare of time with a hyena. More than just aversion, Friedlander speaks of “disgusting insults” without being able to articulate these anti-Semitic descriptions. He saves himself by saying that it was neither ideological nor political, but of a social nature, in this case caused by envy.

Of course, these descriptions of Bloch are also the subject of Andreas Eisenschmid’s great book on the Jew Proust, Der Elephant im Raum. (Hanser Verlag, Munich 2022. 236 pages, €26). The second time he mentions the hyena, it looks like he’s going to have to pass. Isenschmid speaks of a “gag,” a “self-contradiction on the part of the narrator”: “You can also call it a reversal from the historical discourse, which characterizes the ‘time restored’, to the atavistic racist discourse, that is, the last ignition of the contradiction that haunts the narrator in his dealings with the Jew” .

Everyone has forgotten that I am a Jew. I do not

Marcel Proust

Isenschmid is still more analytical and in-depth than Friedlander, but also of many other biographers who did not pay full attention to Proust’s Jewish side – although Proust was of Jewish descent on his mother’s side and with two characters of Jewish descent with Swan and Bloch consistently throughout all Folders “search” occur.

If one takes as standard the beautiful effective ending of Eisenschmid’s book, i.e. Proust’s statement in a letter (though lost) to his friend Emmanuel Perle: “Everyone has forgotten that I am a Jew. I do not”, then Proust’s life and work is heavily permeated with Jews. And although the writer, born at Autel in 1871, was not raised Jewish, in his mid-twenties he began to deal extensively with Jews, with the rabid anti-Semitism in France in the aftermath. The Dreyfus Affair, which dominated the entire 1890s.

Isenschmid began his investigation of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain who had fallen victim to a conspiracy, was exiled in 1894 and later acquitted after a sensational trial. Describing himself as “an ardent Dreyfussard,” Proust explains how Proust, as a writer and political observer (he attended Dreyfuss’ trial every day), became aware of his Jewishness. He was guided by “strong feelings”, but “mostly expressed them only indirectly” “and maintained a constantly ambivalent relationship with them.”

Without swan no “search”, it was the first

It’s the same with Bloch, who has much in common with the narrator of “The Search”, who is sometimes distinguished by admiration (not necessarily envy). There are matching identities and warm words, right down to the wonderful restaurant scene in “Guermantes”. Here the narrator describes people of Jewish descent as “of high spiritual and moral standing, endowed with extraordinary sensitivity”, and he is aware of many other advantages.

This is in contrast to Swann, who is somehow Bloch’s more positive, more sympathetic anti-personality. In the novel, he renounced his Judaism, completely assimilated, and shortly before his death the supposedly typical physical features appear. Swan is ultimately responsible for the “research,” as stated in the last volume: “If I think about it carefully, I have possessed, in general, the material of my experience, which will also be my book of Swan.”

Even the “decision” to write came from this, Isenschmid adds to this quote – and then moves on to another, very special, and often easy-to-read passage where reality mingles more with fiction: Will Swann address the narrator, or is he the author? “However, dear Charles Swan, whom I knew very little about… It remains to be seen if Proust does not want to touch upon Swan’s real-life model, Charles Haas (surname omitted in old German translations, by the way).

But Isenschmid also took on everything that came before “The Search,” and sometimes “The Elefant in the Room” takes on the character of a Proust reader for advanced users. He drew a sketch of the larger, original Jewish portrait of Swan from early pamphlets and mentions how Swan and his family were, so to speak, “devoid of religion”; He studied “Ur-Recherche,” 75 papers first published in 2021, which begin with scenes from the life of a Jewish family extended in a garden in Auteuil (where Proust grew up and which in many ways were a model for Compray). Or he explains how the Dreyfus affair found expression in Proust’s first powerful autobiographical novel, never completed, Jean Santuelle, which was only published in the early 1950s.

There are also portraits of Proust’s Jewish relatives on his mother’s side, and discussions of the intellectual influences on the young author (such as the writings of the anti-Semitic journalist Maurice Barré), or the character: Proust was a close friend of the Doddites who were also hostile to Dreyfus and the writer Alphonse Doudet and his sons. Or there is a reference to a letter which was not really a letter, but a letter, in which Proust had already dealt with the anti-Semitism of his day in 1895.

Of course, Isenschmid cannot resolve the contradictions, the “slingshot movements” of Marcel Proust, and this is in their nature, and of course the writer treats the writer more kindly than Saul Friedländer in this regard. But the very Jewish foundations of the “research” make it all the more fascinating.

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