Book Review | A Jewish Outsider in Paris

By | May 28, 2019

I have been thinking about Marcel Proust and the Jews. Several weeks ago, in the doldrums of the second winter of my retirement, the memory of a friend’s question about my plans to keep myself occupied, a question perhaps posed half-facetiously considering the cliché it contained—did I have a plan, such as reading Proust?—came to mind and suddenly struck me as the kind of plan for which winters in retirement are most suitable, and it inspired me to plot my mental escape from that dark and unusually damp season into Belle Epoque France (roughly the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914), 4,000-plus pages of it, rendered in Marcel Proust’s prose, which very often consists of sentences packed with similes and digressions within digressions, sentences typically running longer than even this one. So here I am, roughly midway through the seven-volume novel whose title is now translated as In Search of Lost Time (as of this writing I am in volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah), having prolonged the experience by reading books about Proust while advancing through his magnum opus.

The narrator of Lost Time is a writer, also named Marcel, whose author makes some critical distinctions between his fictional protagonist and himself. Although Proust was baptized, his mother was Jewish, born into the Weil family of bankers; the Marcel of the novels has no Jewish parent. Proust was gay (to use his preferred word, he was “an invert”); Marcel seems to be one of the few major characters in the novel who is not. Like the real-life Proust, Marcel the fictional adolescent and young adult is a social climber of Himalayan ambition. Having wormed his way into the salons, dinners and galas of the titled aristocracy of Paris, he makes the disappointing observation that, for all their beauty and pedigree, they are a dim lot and narrow-minded to boot.

Which brings us to the Jews. In the village where young Marcel’s family spent summer vacations, they would walk in either of two directions, one toward the castle of the noble Guermantes family, the other past the country home of a family friend named Charles Swann. (Swann’s Way is the title of the novel’s first volume; The Guermantes Way is the third.) The Guermantes way was the way of the ancient, crumbling but still glamorous social order of the aristocracy, the France of knights-in-armor and bad days at the guillotine. Swann’s way was the way of recently acquired wealth in commerce and banking, the way of the dynamic, ascendant bourgeoisie.

What makes the Jewishness of Swann important in Lost Time is the backdrop of the great political issue of turn-of-the-century Paris, the Dreyfus affair.

Swann was a Jew, at least in the terms by which Proust probably saw himself as half-Jewish—by ancestry, not by faith or practice. The Swanns were at least nominally Catholic but, as one society grande dame says of him in Proust’s novel, “I know he’s a convert, and even his parents and grandparents before him. But they do say converts remain more attached to their religion than anyone else, that it’s all just a pretense. Is that true?”

In other words, Swann bears the suspicion of being a modern-day New Christian, or converso, which is how I have come to see him. We know of his Jewishness because others allude to his family background, as if hinting at generations of skeletons in the closet; as for his own view of his family’s origins, Swann gives away nothing. He is the 19th-century Jew-by-genealogy par excellence, who epitomizes the social class that made Paris the jewel of the Western world. He is admitted to the super-exclusive Jockey Club, a measure of acceptance at the time typically barred to Jews not named Rothschild. He is an art collector and expert, a maven to aristocrats whose palace walls and budgets exceed their knowledge of painting. Swann is based on the real-life Charles Haas, a debonair and witty Jew who was embraced in aristocratic circles as one of what Caroline Weber, in her wonderfully informative and entertaining book Proust’s Duchess, calls “a handful of strategically selected outsiders, a group one clubman termed ‘a homeopathic dose of bourgeois.’” Having served Emperor Louis-Napoleon’s government as an adviser on monuments and art, Haas went on to advise such nobles as Mme. Greffulhe, one of the three women Weber writes about as a model for Proust’s fictional Duchesse de Guermantes. Weber quotes Greffulhe as saying, “‘I love going to the Salon de Paris’—the annual exhibition of French academic art—‘with Haas. He helps me figure out what my opinion is.’” Such were the uses of the mind in the company of the titled.

Neither Proust nor the fictional Marcel has much positive to say about Jews. The narrator manages to link the two attributes that the author has shorn him of—Jewish ancestry and sexual orientation—into a joke about closeted “Sodomites”: “…I have wanted provisionally to forestall the fatal error that would consist, just as a Zionist movement has been encouraged, in creating a sodomist movement and in rebuilding Sodom. But, no sooner arrived there, and the sodomists would be leaving the town so as to appear not to belong to it, would take a wife, would keep mistresses in other cities, where they would find, moreover, all the appropriate amusements.” More pointedly, an unambiguously Jewish character in the novel, Marcel’s onetime schoolmate Albert Bloch, is brilliant but uncouth, a caricature of the pushy, ill-mannered Jew of anti-Semitic tropes.

What makes the Jewishness of Bloch and Swann important in Lost Time is the backdrop of the great political issue of turn-of-the-century Paris, the Dreyfus affair, the campaign to vindicate an Alsatian Jewish Army captain framed by his gentile comrades for espionage. The aristocrats of the “Guermantes way” are typically pro-Army, anti-Dreyfus. Marcel is a convinced Dreyfusard—a believer in the officer’s innocence. So is Bloch. And so is Swann. Toward the end of his life, Swann openly despises the anti-Semites of the aristocracy, but, knowing them well, he cautions the younger and more headstrong Bloch to act discreetly. When the Prince de Guermantes reveals to Swann that he has rethought the case and come out on the side of Dreyfus, Bloch is all for action:

“We must ask him to sign our lists….with a name like his, that would have a tremendous effect.” But Swann, tempering the burning conviction of the Israelite with the diplomatic moderation of the man about town, whose habits he had imbibed too deeply to be able this belatedly to shed them, refused to sanction Bloch’s sending the Prince a round-robin to sign, even a seemingly spontaneous one. “He can’t do that, one mustn’t ask for the impossible,” repeated Swann. “Here we have a charming man who has traveled thousands of miles to get to where we are. He can be very useful to us. Were he to sign your list, he would simply be compromising himself with his own people, would be castigated on our account, would perhaps repent of his confidences and not give us any more.” What was more, Swann withheld his own name. He thought it too Hebraic not to produce the wrong effect.

The neo-Dreyfusard Prince is the exception to the rule in his social circles. In fact, when Swann publicly identifies himself with the Dreyfusard cause, the perfect converso encounters a social inquisition in the salons and palaces where the fruits of his aesthetic wisdom hang on the walls. In the eyes of the Duc de Guermantes (the prince’s cousin), Swann’s position on Dreyfus is not just wrong, but disloyal:

“…his behavior toward us has been unspeakable. He was taken up by society in the old days… I’d never have believed it of him, him, a discerning gourmet, a positive mind, a collector, a lover of old books, a member of the Jockey Club, a man highly respected on all sides, a connoisseur of good addresses who used to send us the best port you can drink, a dilettante, a family man. Oh, I’ve been badly let down…he shouldn’t have done that, he should have openly disowned the Jews and the condemned man’s supporters.”

Like Queen Esther, whom the conversos venerated as a patron saint, Swann ultimately does not disown the Jews. Mind you, In Search of Lost Time is not a book about Jews and Judaism. Swann’s Dreyfusard sympathies are less central to Proust’s story than his other brazen violation of upper-class mores: He marries his mistress, a former prostitute who is unacceptable in the “best” salons where Swann himself would otherwise be welcome. His marriage is more an act of jealousy than affection, and like his activism in the Dreyfus Affair, it is socially costly.

Perhaps Swann’s loyalty to his wife (who, he remarks, wasn’t even his “type”) reflects a natural outsider sentiment, drawn from the same place as his ability to spot the anti-Semite. Although it can be uncomfortable for the contemporary Jewish reader to encounter the anti-Semitism of the French upper classes of more than a century ago, one reads today with the knowledge that the Europe that worshipped its crowned heads was destined for oblivion in the Great War, in which a rehabilitated Alfred Dreyfus served and was promoted to major.

As for Swann’s caution about names on petitions, like the youthful Bloch I would probably have been frustrated with him 50 years ago had I persevered with Proust as an undergraduate French major (at the pace of my reading Proust’s labyrinthine sentences in French I would still be at it). But from the vantage point of retirement, Swann’s knowledge of the world and preference for results over sensation strike me as compelling arguments for Swann’s way.

Former NPR host Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment.






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