How Being Jewish Changed Proust’s Life

A new book and a separate exhibition in Paris focus on the Jewishness of the author of ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ ‘Everybody knew that he was half-Jewish and gay,’ one expert says, but the Jewish influence on his writing is only becoming clear now

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A photograph of Marcel Proust from the exhibition 'Marcel Proust: On his Mother’s Side' at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.
A photograph of Marcel Proust from the exhibition 'Marcel Proust: On his Mother’s Side' at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.

“Proust is a journey into life,” my friend, the late Israeli poet Yotam Reuveni, once told me. Indeed, anybody who enters Proust’s world, deciphers it and wends through its winding musical prose will be captivated forever and leave richer – but also sadder.

Marcel Proust is elegant, fascinating, innovative, unique and a snob. In France he’s considered one of the greats alongside Balzac, Stendhal and Hugo; his work may be considered a little distant, elitist and challenging, but everyone recognizes his importance as a father of modern literature.

People will say nonchalantly, “Oui … ‘La Recherche,’” referring to “À la recherche du temps perdu,” the author’s grand oeuvre “In Search of Lost Time,” also known as “Remembrance of Things Past.” You’re supposed to say you’ve tackled the 3,000 pages, even though you probably haven’t.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Proust’s death; last year was the 150th anniversary of his birth. He was born in 1871 to Prof. Adrien Proust, a well-known and wealthy doctor, and Jeanne Weil, a Jewish woman who never converted to Christianity.

René-Xavier Prinet's 1910 painting 'La Plage de Cabourg,' from the exhibition.

Throughout his life Proust suffered from asthma, and as a fragile child he spent long holidays on the seacoast or in the village of Illiers in north central France. As a young boy he was already drawn by aristocrats’ salons, where he would be welcomed thanks to his charm, good manners and his family’s wealth. He met artists, authors and financiers, many of whom would be the inspiration for characters in his works.

The most important is Charles Swann, his famous Jewish protagonist who fell in love with a prostitute and is probably based on Charles Haas, a wealthy Jewish art collector and member of high society. The amusing Baron de Charlus is based on the aristocrat Baron Montesquiou, a friend of Proust’s and an openly gay man.

The Duchess Oriane de Guermantes, the narrator’s love object, is believed to be based on a number of sources. French high society provided Proust with great inspiration; he lived a rich social life – as long as his health allowed him.

Proust began work on “In Search of Lost Time” in 1907. The first volume, “Swann’s Way,” was published in 1913 by the Grasset publishing house, though at the author’s expense. World War I delayed the release of the second volume to 1919, this time published by the famous Gallimard, which became Proust’s regular publisher.

He worked on “In Search of Lost Time” from 1906 until a few days before his death in 1922. The seven volumes, not written in chronological order, came out between 1913 and 1927. Proust died at age 51 on November 18, 1922, at 44 Rue de l’Amiral Hamelin in Paris, his final apartment.

Proust would regularly write in his previous apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann between walls covered in cork tiles so that the noise from the street wouldn’t disturb him. He slept during the day and toiled at night. Before his death he managed to complete the final volumes “The Prisoner,” “The Fugitive” and “Time Regained.” His faithful maid, Céleste Albaret, looked after him with great devotion in the final years of his life.

The cover of the new book 'Proust du côté juif.'

The centenary of Proust’s death has been accompanied by interest in his Jewish ancestry with the opening of the exhibition “Marcel Proust: On his Mother’s Side” at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. Also, a notable book has come out, “Proust du côté juif” (“Proust From His Jewish Side”), by Antoine Compagnon of the Académie Française, perhaps the world’s greatest expert on Proust.

Proust the Jew

There isn’t enough room to note all of Prof. Compagnon’s works and the prestigious institutions where he has taught, including the Collège de France and Columbia University. In February he was named one of the 40 living “Immortals” – the most important French intellectuals – at the Académie Française.

He also served as an adviser to the new exhibition. In between lectures in Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy, and the opening of the exhibition on April 14, Compagnon found time to speak with Haaretz.

Antoine Compagnon. 'We mustn’t forget that [Proust] was baptized a Christian and is considered a Catholic.'

In articles on the exhibition and your book, you’ve called these efforts the first to explore Proust from a Jewish angle.

“It depends on the period. There have been different interpretations, but no attention was paid to the Jewish angle because it wasn’t relevant. We mustn’t forget that he was baptized a Christian and is considered a Catholic. The sensitivity to the Jewish issue was different. He didn’t talk about his Judaism, even though his mother Jeanne Weil was the daughter of a Jewish family of significant standing in the community.”

The Weil family, which has roots in Germany, was well known in the 18th century. Baruch Weil, Proust’s great-grandfather, was the deputy of Paris’ Jewish Council and was also a mohel – a person who performs Jewish ritual circumcisions – at Paris’ main synagogue. The family was well integrated into French bourgeois society but maintained its connections with Jewish institutions and even donated to them.

Jeanne Weil married Adrien Proust in 1870. Jeanne’s father, Nathé, is believed to have been a Freemason and knew Adrien’s father through that fraternal organization. The couple had two sons, Marcel (1871) and Robert (1873), who like his father became a doctor.

Did Proust hide his gay identity and his Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side?

“He didn’t hide anything. In the aristocratic circles of the Saint-Germain quarter, where he would spend his time, and among the bourgeoisie and the wealthy businessmen of the Monceau quarter, everybody knew that he was half-Jewish and gay, but nobody made a big deal about it. His affairs with the composer Reynaldo Hahn, with Lucien Daudet [the son of novelist Alphonse Daudet], and with his driver Alfred Agostinelli were known by everybody.”

The late Israeli poet and critic Yotam Reuveni.

It was a different period, the late 19th century and early 20th century, La Belle Époque. French society split around the Dreyfus affair; Proust immediately backed Dreyfus, Compagnon says. The day after publication of Émile Zola’s famous article “J’Accuse,” Proust and his friends Élie and Daniel Halévy signed a petition calling for a retrial for the officer falsely accused of treason. The family of Proust’s father opposed Alfred Dreyfus, while his mother was a supporter, yet even the aristocracy had its backers of the defamed officer.

The first public “revelation” of Proust’s Jewishness came on February 23, 1898, when the editor of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole wrote, “Who are all these Jewish intellectuals – Tristan Bernard, Léon Blum, Marcel Proust – who dare attack a personality such as Maurice Barrès,” a nationalist who considered Dreyfus a traitor.

In one of Proust’s final letters, he wrote to a friend that no one anymore “can visit … the small Jewish cemetery where my grandfather – according to a tradition he didn’t understand – went every year to lay a small stone on his parents’ grave.”

The small cemetery was the Jewish section of the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where members of the Weil family were buried. Jeanne Weil wanted to be cremated, even though this is not a Jewish custom, but she was buried alongside her relatives. Her sons had the Jewish Council bring in a rabbi to conduct the funeral.

You devote part of your book to the new Zionists who saw Proust as an exemplary figure who symbolized the secular Jewish presence in French literature.

An illustration of French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, from the exhibition.

“Indeed, French Zionist periodicals such as Ménorah and Palestine took an interest in Proust after his death in 1922. In an obituary published in December 1922, Georges Cattaoui, a young Zionist, put a spotlight on his friends’ curiosity regarding Jews’ presence in modern French literature and noted ‘top drawer’ authors such as Marcel Proust.”

Compagnon quotes the obituary: “Only he [Proust] could understand and judge with clarity and compassion the Jews around him, whom he called Swann, Bloch, Rachel, Nissim, Bernard. Maybe he was helped in this by his Jewish identity on his mother’s side.’”

Compagnon notes how articles about Proust and excerpts from his books were published in Zionist periodicals like La Revue Juive by authors like Albert Cohen and the poet André Spire. These critics discussed Proust in the context of the Jewish cultural presence in French literature.

“The critic Albert Thibodeau writes that ‘Proust like Michel de Montaigne or Henri Bergson [both secular Jews] put a bit of Jewish blood in our literary history.’ The young political Zionists saw Proust’s Jewishness and fame as a source of pride,” Compagnon says.

Natalie Mauriac Dyer, a senior researcher at Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Natalie Mauriac Dyer is a senior researcher at Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and heads a group of researchers who organize forums and seminars on Proust. She was born into the world of literature. On her mother’s side she’s the great-granddaughter of Robert Proust, the author’s younger brother. On the side of her father, author and journalist Claude Mauriac, she’s the granddaughter of François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Prize winner for literature.

Asked by Haaretz why she has devoted much of her research to Proust, she says: “The painting ‘Esther Before Ahasuerus’ [by Frans Francken the Younger] was found in my mother’s house. It had been owned by the Proust family and was very much loved by Jeanne Weil. Jeanne admired the Jewish heroine and especially the classic theater version by the dramatist Jean Racine that she saw in 1905 in a performance starring Sarah Bernhardt. The production with Bernhardt was accompanied by music by Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s lover. Esther ‘hid’ her Jewish identity.

“In 2018, a Proust manuscript from 1908 known as the ‘The Seventy-Five Pages’ was discovered, edited by me and published by Gallimard. These pages with handwritten comments by Proust are a sketch for what would later become his great work. This manuscript was in the family archive but disappeared mysteriously and reappeared in 2018 after the death of the publisher Bernard de Fallois, who apparently held the manuscript in his collection.

“‘The Seventy-Five Pages’ is autobiographical: The author uses the real names of his mother Jeanne and his grandmother Adele, both Jewish, whose real names don’t appear in his work. These pages are the moment of truth of ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ where Proust only hints at his Jewishness.

“In the chapter ‘Combray,’ the family returns to Paris from a holiday in the village. The narrator, still a child, clasps the branches of his beloved hawthorns to bid them farewell. Before the journey he has to have his photo taken, and his hair is carefully curled and he has a new hat and jacket. The sharp branches of the hawthorns tear his coat and ruffle his ringlets [the word used in the English translation, suggesting an Orthodox Jew’s side curls]. And then, like a princess in a tragedy [the reference is to Racine’s Esther], he throws off his torn clothes and new hat and stomps on them.

“Where did these ringlets suddenly appear from? And why did he suddenly remember Esther, who hid her Jewish identity?”

The translator of Proust to Hebrew, Helit Yeshurun.

Do you agree with the theory that Proust decided to withdraw from society amid the aristocracy’s antisemitism during the Dreyfus affair, lock himself up at home and write his great life’s work?

“That’s not accurate. He didn’t stop going out until the final year of his life, when he was too sick. He stopped going to salons because he felt he had enough material for his work, and he met with friends in restaurants or at sumptuous meals that he would organize, usually at the Ritz Hotel. But for a long time before that he felt that his Jewish identity was a barrier, and he had been exposed to antisemitism, especially during the Dreyfus affair.”

Proust the author

“For a long time, I went to bed early.” With that enigmatic sentence Proust opens the gates to his world, to time lost, to time found.

Mauriac Dyer says: “Why enigmatic? Because his writing wasn’t similar to anything that had been written before. It’s hard to answer the question, ‘What is the plot in his book?’ Despite the opening sentence in the first person, it’s not a series of autobiographical events. We don’t know the writer’s identity, age, the place where he is and the time when these lines were written.

“These are psychological musings about literature, memory and time that has passed. The events in the book that seem unconnected to each other lead through the narrator’s experiences in the first volume to the last volume, ‘Time Regained,’ to a discovery about the meaning of life in art or literature.”

Compagnon adds that “Proust is considered one of the most important modern authors alongside James Joyce with ‘Ulysses’ and Robert Musil with ‘The Man Without Qualities.’ He wrote a work that was completely different from anything written until then and was hard to classify. It may be an autobiographical work, but not of the author.

“It seems the author got lost in time and space and maybe had to reorient himself to understand it. At the time Proust was surprising and fascinating, and to tell the truth he himself didn’t know what he meant when he started writing. Regarding ‘In Search of Lost Time,” we can recall Schopenhauer, who in his book ‘The World as Will and Representation ‘speaks of the ‘intellectual novel.’”

Mauriac Dyer adds: “Proust is one of the fathers of modern literature. In the 19th century, the great classical authors such as Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo and Stendhal wrote in a different style. Proust was considered innovative in relation to the classical novel. In ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ the author uses the first person. The novel isn’t chronological, it’s suspended outside of time, as if it wants to negate it.

“We don’t know the narrator’s character, or even how he looks, but thanks to the direct contact he maintains with the reader, we feel the presence of his body, his desires, his most intimate feelings. The anonymous narrator talks from various perspectives, personalities and aesthetics.

“It’s not easy to read him; the sentences are constructed as a complete work of architecture. The complex style reflects a historical, social, philosophical, satirical and critical perspective all at once. He writes on several levels, on the tactile level and on the cerebral level, and then in the same sentence he analyzes these feelings – and this from various points of view.”

Proust and art

Isabelle Cahn, the curator of the exhibition, says that throughout Proust’s work we can see modern art, painting, sculpture, costume design and music – and their influence on him.

“These two themes are intertwined,” she says. “In the exhibition we couldn’t separate his work from his biography – and the 230 exhibits, paintings, objects and manuscripts prove this.”

Did he prefer the urban vista over the village or sea? After all, because of his asthma, the landscapes he saw, whether urban or natural, were seen through windows – of a carriage and later a car.

“One could say he was a voyeur looking at the world from the outside. The exhibition contains a painting by the Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte, “View From a Balcony,” where you view the outside from the inside through a filter. Proust called the restaurant of the Grand Hotel at the [seaside resort] Cabourg the Aquarium. [In the book the town is known as Balbec.]

“He felt like a fish trapped between walls of glass but was also like the fishermen who at night passed by the restaurant’s windows and saw the diners as fish in an aquarium. Even the cathedrals that he loved so much he saw through the windows of cars,” Cahn says.

She says Proust’s great love of Impressionist painting began when at the end of the 19th century he was writing for the art and literary magazine Revue Blanche, edited by Thadée Natanson. Proust met Natanson’s wife, Misia, a musician who would become a muse for Rodan, Bonnard, Toulouse Lautrec and Vuillard. Through Misia he got to know the Impressionists and the modernist artists of La Belle Époque.

Later, Misia supported musicians and composers such as Fauré and Debussy and cooperated with Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballet Russes. Proust was blinded by the troupe’s choreography and music, as well as the rich costume design and lighting of the Jewish artist Léon Bakst, some of whose Ballet Russes costumes are on display in the exhibition.

“Proust turned Misia into the character Princess Yourbeletieff in the volume ‘Sodom and Gomorrah,’” Cahn says. “Proust loved the music of Fauré and César Franck, which in his work he turned into ‘The Vinteuil Sonata’ that Swann heard when he was in love with Odette de Crécy. We can’t forget that Swann fell madly in love with Odette mainly because of her resemblance – in his eyes – to a Botticelli painting.”

Why was Proust especially interested in the English philosopher John Ruskin?

“He fell in love with Ruskin’s aesthetics, his sophisticated knowledge. The cathedrals that he learned to love he saw as ‘illustrated Bibles.’ He said he aspired to construct his work as a cathedral, but eventually, he said, he did so ‘quite simply, like a dress.’

“Thanks to Ruskin, he discovered Venice, which he visited with his mother, who also helped him translate the author into French. His love for the town is also expressed in his love for the painter Whistler, who painted Venice’s alleyways outside the tourist spots.

“One of these paintings, ‘Symphony in White,’ might have been the inspiration for the name Swann. Toward the end of his life, Proust wrote that he wanted his hero’s name to sound English, and for it to be linked to the color white, so Swann seemed right. The composer Gabriel Fauré even wrote music inspired by Whistler’s creations.”

Who do you think served as the inspiration for the Jewish character Swann?

“There is no doubt that Swann is Charles Haas, the most famous model for Swann’s character. Haas appears in a painting by James Tissot, ‘Le Cercle de la rue Royale,’ and like Swann in Proust’s novel, Haas is the only Jew who belongs to this exclusive club.

“I think it was also based a lot on his uncle Louis Weil, the brother of his grandfather Nathé , who lived in a big house in the Auteuil quarter, the house where the author was born. Louis Weil loved women, and like Swann he spent a fortune on courtship. It has been claimed that the Jewish collector Charles Ephrussi was an inspiration for Swann.”

Helit Yeshurun, who is also a poet, has translated into Hebrew the first, second and final volumes – “Swann’s Way,” “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” and “Time Regained.”

Are you among those who find Proust laborious, or do you believe that the reader considers his work an adventurous journey?

“A person who has read Proust is no longer the same as when he began to sail down this river. His time is no longer the same time, his look is no longer the same look. How many artists can you say that about? Who’s afraid of Marcel Proust? You simply have to set your internal clock by a different Greenwich Mean Time.

“The halo around him certainly deters readers, and maybe the book’s title also projects fear. Both ‘time’ and ‘lost.’ Who has the strength? There’s no promise of happiness, though anyone who reaches the final volume knows that there is. And the knowledge that this is a work of 3,000 pages!

“You have to know how to get carried away, just as you have to know how to fall in love. It seems to me that if we read him quickly, Proust is more understandable than if we stop at every sentence and look for where the subject and object are. Look who’s talking. It’s funny that I should say this because I’m so slow with my translation.

“Proust obviously isn’t for everyone, but neither is he inaccessible. What is he writing about? He writes to us from within. He writes about love, about growing old, about art, about being an imposter. In short, about life that has become literature and literature that has become life.

Just how complicated and demanding has the translation process been?

“The translation was, is and will be complicated and demanding. My work is to search for the Hebrew. From my perspective, language is parallel to time – to pass through its layers and bring into being its vitality, the living moment where things are thought into being, where heroes stare out into space and thoughts pass in dialogue between characters.”

Yeshurun has her challenges conveying a language spoken in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. “Hebrew poses its own negations to translators of Proust,” she says. “No to an overtly Jewish formulation, no to Israeli slang, no to remnants of Yiddish. ... You have to create a pace for him with air to breathe.

Did your work on the translation make you love him more, hate him, or appreciate him more?

“The translation that I began in a sealed room during the [1991] Gulf War gave me a life beyond my own. Over the years a familiarity has formed between us. That’s how I see it. I’m completely loyal to him but now I allow myself greater liberty – no longer in pajamas but no longer in an evening dress.

Do you think his Jewish side plays an important role in his work?

“In my opinion, no. There’s no need to convert him or iron him out. In his novel there are three or four Jewish characters and he examines them from the same ironic viewpoint, loving and free, the way he views himself.

“By the way, the same applies to ‘Jewish traits’ or what society deems as such. A few foolish researchers considered him an antisemite. Being Jewish, like being gay, is a uniqueness that you mustn’t deny but rather live with fully. As with everything, here too, Proust lifts a frog up to the light and examines it from every angle, until he drops it.

Is it possible to point to the most important aspect of his work?

“That it exists.”