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The Marked Jewishness of Marcel Proust


Penned on the occasion of the centenary of the demise of one of the world's greatest authors. 

In high school, I found reading Marcel Proust painfully annoying. Despite the beauty and richness of his style, I thought his never-ending sentences to be extremely tangled and lacking cohesion. I couldn't understand how the description of a flower or the perfume of toasted bread could take up as much as an entire printed page. I couldn't make heads or tails of what he was writing about and handed a botched dissertation to my French teacher. I preferred stories like Alexandre Dumas' Count of Montecristo, Jules Verne's science-fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon, or Sherlock Holmes.

It was only much later, as I started writing poetry and fiction that I went back to Marcel Proust's original French version of In Search of Lost Time. And I was in for a shock. How, I asked myself shamefully, could I have been so remiss as not to have appreciated such a masterpiece ? It was incomparable, nay, revolutionary.

I had never encountered an author who could so deftly analyze his characters and that specific group of French members of the aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century. I was dazzled by the style of a genius. It was like poring through the lens of a microscope over my neighborhood, humans, animals, and plants, the details of which were being revealed to me as never before. I had just become the companion of Alice in Wonderland, but a Wonderland of adults, where everything was real, meaning that none of his observations were implausible.

At one point, every one of us has felt or recognized a trait or an attitude Proust described. I was delving into an extraordinary depiction of life, bustling with emotions, empathy, caustic remarks, and not the least, with the epitome of hypocrisy ; in other words, with every aspect of Parisian high society, the lofty, the sublime, and the decadent.

I was confronted with the author's high sense of humor, his admiration, or , his disdain for the human animal, passing through the whole gamut of their reactions, all of it told in the most exquisite and poetic language.

I haven't read anyone, in the five languages I am fluent in, who could dissect the mind then Xray it like Marcel Proust, revealing by the same token what we thought was forever lost or the importance of the things we disregarded, deeming them too petty or frivolous.

Rediscovering Marcel Proust gave keys to introspection. The further I delved into his world, the better I understood the people surrounding me, even though we lived in very different times. His main haunts were Paris' 8th and 17th arrondissements, between Parc Monceau, Boulevard Hausmann and the Champs Élysées. This, too, is where lived during my 36-odd-years stay in the French capital.

His masterpiece is transcendental and knows no boundaries. Yet, he wasn't aware of it as a citizen of the world. How very surprised he then was to learn that people around the globe were reading his novel.

His work was appreciated in France among a small coterie of readers. However, it is in America, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Japan, et al that Marcel Proust is mostly admired and where there are many fan clubs. In Search of Lost Time continues to be studied in universities on all continents.

Marcel Proust's mother was a handsome, upper-middle-class Ashkenazi Jew, while his father was a Catholic doctor of a lower rank, who despite his anti-Semitism, deeply loved his wife and his two sons. Marcel's maternal grandfather, Baruch Weil (c. 1780-1828), manufactured fine porcelain. He also acted as the vice-president of the Israelite Consistory of Paris and mohel (circumciser).

Proust's religious and spiritual journey was tumultuous and often contradictory. He wanted to become a priest at a certain point, even though he was an agnostic. He was pretty aloof concerning his Jewish roots, like most of his co-religionists who wanted to show how well integrated they were into French society. Yet, he sided conspicuously with the supporters of Dreyfus and applauded Emile Zola's open letter J'accuse, addressed to the President of France, which did much to change the general opinion.

Proust, who assiduously frequented Paris' literary salons, had many Jewish acquaintances and lovers. He mixed with the capital's high society with remarkable ease, despite its anti-Semitic undercurrent. Even avowed judeophobes like Maurras or Barrès, who knew of his mother's background, admired the young man's literary talents.

A critic, who couldn't hide his hatred, went so far as to write that Proust's novel was everything but French in essence, that it reeked of the mendacious traits of the Jewish race, with his winding and never-ending sentences, his over-inflated verbiage, his use of pompous adjectives.

I like to think of Proust as a water sprite cavorting through the mesh of a net without ever being caught. He is very playful, and at the same time, he manages to pull the reader into his extraordinary maze. Such is his skill and his magic.

To quote him: "Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade". In other words, the reader, in his wanderlust, comes out of his Proustian journey with a trove of memories he will cherish, but nothing more.

Before he wrote his monumental novel, Proust took a keen interest in Jewish culture, reading the Torah, acquainting himself with the Kabbala and the Zohar. Some of his critics claimed that the structure of the novel was modeled after the Zohar, with its meanderings and its constant digressions.

With its 4,000-odd pages and seven volumes), In Search for Lost Time is the longest written novel ever. It is full of biblical quotations. He even uses them in his titles as Sodom and Gomorrah.

Some Jews admonished him, saying that he was a traitor to his race. Among his mentors were writers and philosophers such as Chrétien de Troyes, a poet and the founder of Arthurian literature (the Holy Grail), the humanist Michel de Montaigne, whose mother was a Sephardic Jewess converted to the Protestant religion, Henri Bergson, Emile Zola, Anatole France, Flaubert, etc.

In his school days, Proust would invite many classmates to his home, the majority of whom were Jewish. Yet, paradoxically, within his family, one could hear anti-Semitic jokes and remarks.

He was a regular patron at Paris' most sought-after salons, visiting Madame Straus, the wife of Georges Bizet, Madame Cavaillet, née Lippman, Madame Baignères, where he met the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. And the list continues, in which the Jewish and the Catholic aristocracy hobnobbed with the artists, poets, philosophers, painters, and musicians who were writing the prestigious history of modern France.

Along the centuries, France has given the world its very best thinkers, writers, artists, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, and scientists. Marcel Proust was a pure product of that most sophisticated civilization, with its grandiosity, its contradictions, and sometimes with its unpardonable acts. 

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