July 10, 1871, is the birthday of Marcel Proust, the French writer who helped usher in the age of the modern novel with his seven-part, semi-autobiographical work “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time,” earlier translated as “Remembrance of Things Past”).
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Proust was the son of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, and although his parents had him baptized and raised in the church, he was himself not actively involved in any religion. But because of his unusually close relationship with his mother, and the place that Jewish themes and characters have in his work, literary historians and critics have devoted significant attention to Proust’s sense of Jewish identity.
Marcel Proust was born in Paris and grew up there, though vacations were spent in Illiers in the country southwest of Paris, represented in his great novel as the fictional Combray. His father, Adrien Proust, was a grocer’s son who became a leading pathologist and epidemiologist. In 1870 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his research on how cholera spreads and his method for keeping it out of France.
Marcel’s mother was the former Jeanne Clemence Weil, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker from Alsace. Adolphe Cremieux, the French legislator and champion of equal rights for the country’s Jews, was a great uncle.
In a 2013 article in Haaretz about Proust and the Jewish question, French-literature scholar Lena Shilony described how such a marriage was not unusual in 19th-century France. For Weil, it offered “an entry ticket to French society,” while her husband saw his economic status elevated. Part of the understanding of such a union was that the children would be baptized, but the mother would neither convert nor be subjected to a Christian burial when she died.
The lifestyle of the young Marcel did not engender great expectations. He was sickly, reluctant to work for a living, lived with his parents until he was 34 – he moved out only after they both were dead – and spent much of his time at parties and salons. But all the while he was moving among the upper classes and taking acutely observed mental notes. Much of it later made its way into his fiction.
Between Swann and Moses
It was a period of great social and political ferment in France, and as much as Proust’s novels were personal, the personal incorporated the political. Contemporary readers ask if the caricatures and stereotypes with which he portrays Jewish characters make Proust anti-Semitic. But he also wrote with great sensitivity about the precarious place of Jews in French society.
The main protagonist of “À la recherche” – which was published between 1913 and 1927 – is a Jewish character, Swann. In parsing Proust’s treatment of Swann, Shilony notes the parallel that Proust makes in volume 2, “Swann in Love,” between his eponymous character and the Hebrew prophet Moses.
Like his creator, and like Moses, dying beyond the reach of the Promised Land, Swann “dies with his passion to lend meaning to his life through creative work still beyond his reach,” according to Shilony. Yet also like Moses, Swann, as Proust writes, has gained “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.”
In contrast to the conservative, Catholic circles in which he was socially immersed, Proust was not only sympathetic to the disgraced Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus, he also became actively involved in his defense, and his sentiments are reflected both in Swann and Jean Santeuil, the protagonist of his first, unfinished novel.
Proust identified with Dreyfus not because the victim of justice was a Jew, but because he understood that he had been framed, and that the implications of the case for French society were grave.