Was Marcel Proust Jewish, a Jew-Hater — or Both?

French Writer Has Moment in Limelight and Under Microscope

Proust’s Way: The French author with his mother, Jeanne, and his brother, Robert.
Proust’s Way: The French author with his mother, Jeanne, and his brother, Robert.

By Lena Shilony

Published December 29, 2013.
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(Haaretz) — This was the year of Marcel Proust in the literary world. The centenary of the publication of the first part of “In Search of Lost Time” (formerly translated as “Remembrance of Things Past”) was marked by a plethora of articles, conferences, exhibitions and public readings of the highly influential work. So enshrined is Proust’s status today that it’s hard to believe the process of his acceptance was far from simple.

In fact, he paid out of his own pocket for the first volume of his novel t o be published. Legend has it that André Gide, the reader for the distinguished Gallimard publishing house, didn’t even bother to open the manuscript of a man who had the reputation of being a frivolous dilettante and snob.

Even after the publication of the first volumes, enthusiasm was markedly greater abroad (Virginia Woolf and Walter Benjamin were ardent readers) than in France. Daniel Mornet, a professor of literature at the Sorbonne in the 1920s and wrote a survey of contemporary writers, listed Proust as one of the novelists of the time. Apart from Proust, to whom Mornet devoted half a page, all the other writers he mentioned were destined to be forgotten. He labeled Proust an original and strange writer who displayed “oriental inspiration.” That, of course, was an allusion to Proust’s Jewish origins.

Proust, who was born in 1871 and died in 1922, can be seen as the last great French writer of the 19th century and the first revolutionary writer of the 20th. His father, Adrien Proust, was a physician from a humble rural background who enjoyed a career as a professor of medicine. His social rise was abetted by his marriage to a wealthy heiress, Jeanne Weil, the daughter of a Jewish banker.

The second half of the 19th century in France was marked by the success of the country’s Jews, notably in finance and banking, though also in culture (Jacques Offenbach in music; Sarah Bernhardt in the theater) and politics (Adolphe Crémieux, a distant relative of Proust’s, thanks to whom French citizenship was granted to the Jews of Algeria). The Jews’ success generated anti-Semitic reactions whose peak came in the Dreyfus affair in the century’s last decade.

At the time Proust’s parents met, rich Jewish brides – like American heiresses – were a coveted commodity in the marriage market. Weil acquired an entry ticket to French society and her husband improved his economic status. The terms, imposed by social convention, are clear: The children would be raised as Christians – and indeed, Marcel and his younger brother Robert were both baptized. Their mother did not convert to Christianity nor given a Christian burial “in deference to her parents,” as Proust noted. From the Jewish standpoint, Proust remained a Jew; from a Christian perspective, because baptism is an irrevocable sacrament, he was and remained a Catholic.

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