Unblinking Eye The infinite rewards of immersion in Proust

In a contest for the best novels of the past four centuries, the winners, surely, are: for the 17th century, Don Quixote; for the 18th century, Tom Jones; for the 19th, War and Peace; and for the 20th, Remembrance of Things Past, or as it is now increasingly known in English, In Search of Lost Time. A Spaniard, an Englishman, a Russian, and a Frenchman—what a motley crew their authors comprise! Cervantes was the son of a barber-surgeon; Fielding was a journalist, a jurist, and scion of the squirearchy; Tolstoy, of course, a nobleman; and Proust a half-Jewish, fully homosexual flâneur. 

The theme of the story of art, unlike that of the sciences, is not, whatever else it may be, one of progress. In science, discovery builds on discovery, achievement on achievement. "If I have seen further," said Isaac Newton, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." In art there are merely—some merely—discrete geniuses, who arrive without predecessors and depart without successors. Marcel Proust is a case in highly italicized point: No one could have predicted that this dilettantish young social climber would write the novel that Benjamin Taylor, in this study of Proust in the Yale Jewish Lives series, calls the "culmination of European literature."

Taylor's Proust: The Search is a work of admirable concision, covering Marcel Proust's life, interests, oddity, and the arc of his career, all in relatively brief compass. Relying on the work of Proust's biographers—William C. Carter and Jean-Yves Tadié especially—but also through his own penetrating reading of Proust's writing, he has brought out what it is about Proust that commands our interest and, for those Proustolaters among us, our devotion.

Proust's father was a physician, an expert in cholera, himself the son of a provincial Roman Catholic grocer. His mother was Jewish, a Weil, daughter of a successful Parisian stockbroker, with an uncle, Adolphe Crémieux, who was a staunch defender of Jewish rights in France. The marriage, as Taylor characterizes it, joined "ambition to money." Each may have felt him- or herself superior to the other. Their first child, Marcel, was born in 1871; a second son, Robert, who like his father would become a physician, was born roughly two years later. No effort was made, Taylor notes, to force a conversion on the part of Jeanne Proust, who continued to think herself Jewish.

Marcel Proust was the greatest mama's boy in all of literature. An asthmatic all his life, his mother, upon whose affection he counted preternaturally, was also something akin to his caregiver. A social butterfly, of highly exotic coloring, the young Marcel Proust dithered and dallied and did not get down to serious work until his mid-thirties. He felt he had betrayed his father, remarking that "I am well aware that I was always the dark spot in his life." On his mother's death, which occurred when he was 34, Proust wrote: "She takes away my life with her, as Papa had taken away hers." This major subtraction from his life, as Taylor notes, turned his thoughts to suicide. He replaced his mother with work on his great novel.

How Jewish Proust felt himself—though anyone born to a Jewish mother under the Israeli Law of Return technically qualifies as Jewish—is a complicated matter. Taylor writes that "Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother." But then, a Jew, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, and Proust, though baptized, was nonetheless often taken for Jewish. In his Diaries Harold Nicolson described Proust as "very Hebrew." Earlier, Colette put a character modeled on Proust in one of her novels, describing him as "a young kike of letters." François Mauriac, describing in his diary a visit to Proust, wrote: "sheets none too clean, the stench of the furnished flat, his Jewish features, with his ten-day growth of beard, sinking back into ancestral filth." A man who served on a literary prize committee with Proust described him as "despite the moustache, [having] the look of a sixty-year-old Jewish lady who might have been beautiful."

Proust understood that Jewishness is a club from which it would be dishonorable to drop out, even though his being Jewish in those days may have prevented him from joining other clubs. Antisemitism was one of the favorite indoor sports of the French literati: The Goncourts, Maurice Barrès, Alphonse Daudet, Paul Bourget, and others engaged freely in it. Benjamin Taylor quotes a letter from Proust to Robert de Montesquiou, one of the people on whom Proust's character Baron de Charlus is based, apropos of his antisemitism. In this letter Proust remarks that, though himself Catholic, his mother is Jewish, and this is "enough for me to refrain from such discussions"—adding, ambiguously, that he "was not free to have the ideas I might otherwise have on the subject."

Yet Proust had no difficulty aligning himself with Jewish causes. In the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely charged with treason and sent off to Devil's Island, Proust signed petitions on behalf of Dreyfus. He was able to persuade Anatole France, then possessed of a much grander name than his own, to sign Zola's famous J'accuse article against the injustice done to Dreyfus that appeared in 1898 in the French paper L'Aurore. Charles Swann, the most sympathetic character in In Search of Lost Time, is a Jew.

Fame did not come quickly to Proust. In his mid-twenties he published Pleasures and Days, a lightish collection of feuilletons and parodies. He worked on Jean Santeuil, a longish autobiographical novel that he abandoned. With the aid of his mother, whose English was superior to his own, he turned out a translation of John Ruskin's Bible of Amiens. He also wrote an important collection of essays, Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing against what he took to be the biographical fallacy in judging fiction.

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