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.
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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.

Proust, with his acute sensitivity, was aware of this duality. He belonged to the two religions and to neither of them, and remained on their margins. Many of the Jews who appear in his work, such as his schoolmate Bloch or Bloch’s relatives, are described with the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes. As an adolescent, Proust had friends who were Jew-haters; as an adult, he hobnobbed with members of the French upper class who despised Jews, and frequently adopted their point of view. He spent his childhood vacations in a deeply rooted French milieu, in the shadow of the church in the village of Illiers (transformed into Combray, the subject of the first book), where members of his father’s family, such as Aunt Leonie, still lived. Village life allowed the young Parisian to get a taste of traditional Christian France, the seasonal cycle and rituals, which charmed him.

However, Proust was also a devoted son to his mother and grandmother, and could not ignore their Jewish heritage. Of his mother’s letters, only one that mentions a Jewish detail has been preserved. Marcel, who lived with his parents until the age of 34, broke a cup made of Venetian glass in a fit of anger. He sent a written apology and his mother replied, “Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple – the symbol of an indissoluble union.”

The relationship between mother and sickly son was indeed symbiotic. Because of his desire not to hurt her, Proust only began to write and publish his monumental work after her death. She was thus spared exposure to the novel’s many homosexual descriptions.

In one famous passage, Proust draws a comparison between two persecuted minorities: the Jews and homosexuals. The character who reflects most succinctly the complexity and ambivalence that marked Proust’s attitude toward his Jewish origins is his protagonist, Charles Swann. He gives his name to the first volume of “In Search of Lost Time,” which is titled “Swann’s Way”; its second section is called “Swann in Love” (“Un amour de Swann”).

Incidental manner

Let us pause to consider the name of the person who is a friend of the narrator’s parents and is present in his life for many years. Swann sounds at first like an English name, though the name of the bird has only one n. Nor is it a German swan – schwan – a name that a Jew might be expected to have (many French Jews had German names because of their origins in Alsace).

The combination of the first two letters of the name Swann cannot be French, so his name already hints at his outsiderness and hybrid origins. How do we know he is Jewish? Proust provides this information in an incidental manner, in a parenthetical sentence, as he often does. In the principal sentence, the narrator notes that his grandfather does not like his Jewish friends, then adds that the grandfather actually has a Jewish friend, namely Swann. In the course of decades, until his final appearance during the period of the Dreyfus affair, Swann symbolizes the height of French Jewry’s social success. He socializes with princes and dukes, and is welcomed in high-society salons.

Proust drew his inspiration for Swann from two men named Charles. One was Charles Haas, a rich Jew who was a member of the ultra-exclusive Jockey Club and known for fraternizing with the aristocracy. The other was Charles Ephrussi (who plays a prominent role in Edmund de Waal’s splendid book “The Hare with Amber Eyes”). Ephrussi (an Ashkenazi reading of the name Ephrati) came from a family of international bankers that competed with the Rothschilds. As his brother managed the business, Charles turned to art and became a well-known collector, a friend of Impressionist painters and the editor of an art journal. Seemingly, Swann owes his love of art to Charles Ephrussi.

Proust’s nightmare

Charles Swann, with all his complexity, is also Proust, who frequents the salons of aristocratic ladies, is vexed over the Jewish issue and is fond of art in a variety of forms: painting, music, theater and architecture. Like Swann, Proust, too, experienced love as sickness and suffering. Swann dreams of writing a book about the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer, but devotes his days to the vanities of this world. He dies with his passion to lend meaning to his life through creative work still beyond his reach. That was also Proust’s nightmare - that the vacuous social life that took up his time would prevent him from completing his artistic mission. Vermeer was also Proust’s great love, in a period when the brilliant Dutch painter was barely known.

In a famous scene from the book, Proust brings his hero, the writer Bergotte, to an art exhibition. Bergotte examines Vermeer’s painting “View of Delft,” mumbles, “That’s how I ought to have written,” then collapses and dies opposite the painting. However, it is not Vermeer but a different painter who plays an important role in “Swann in Love,” which tells of Swann’s passion for a frivolous courtesan, Odette de Crécy.

In their first meeting, Swann is not impressed by the woman who will soon infatuate him. The passion is ignited when Swann, an art lover, discovers a resemblance between Odette and a figure in a Botticelli painting. Proust is not referring to the painter’s famous figures, such as Venus or La Primavera, but to the representation of Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, as she appears with her sisters by the well in a lesser known series by Botticelli, “The Life of Moses.”

The resemblance will transform Swann’s love into an obsession. He will marry Odette and discover, in the last line of “Swann in Love,” that he wasted his life with a woman who “wasn’t even my type.”

We will allow ourselves to extend the comparison: if Odette resembles Zipporah, then Swann resembles Moses. In the biblical episode, shepherds drive off Jethro’s daughters as they draw water from the well, and Moses protects them. They invite him to the house of their father, who is a priest of Midian. Introducing him, they explain, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds.” Moses does not protest: at this stage of his life, it is convenient for him to appear as an Egyptian, as it is convenient for Swann to appear as a “Frenchman.”

A midrash about the death of Moses harks back to this event. Weeping, Moses asks why he will not be permitted to enter Canaan. God’s reply – “Because you turned away” – alludes to Moses’ attempt to deny his origins. For Moses this was a one-time blunder; for Swann it continues until his last days.

At the end of the 19th century, the Dreyfus affair shook and split French society. The establishment, the Church, the army and the upper classes all aligned themselves against the traitor-Jew Alfred Dreyfus. Even those who were uncertain about Dreyfus’ guilt argued, like one of the protagonists of the writer François Mauriac, “For one wretched Jew is it permissible to harm the army?” Proust backed Dreyfus, even though this ran contrary to the general view in the salons he frequented.

In an early novel, “Jean Santeuil” (published posthumously), Proust describes the court sessions at which he was present. Swann’s final appearance in “In Search of Lost Time,” in the fourth volume, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (sometimes translated as “Cities of the Plain”), takes the Dreyfus affair as its hinge. The conversations in the salon of the Guermantes family naturally deal with the affair, and the speakers are taken aback when their friend Swann, whom they have known as a highly educated individual who loves art, turns out to be a supporter of Dreyfus.

In passage that is at once bizarre, tragic and grotesque, Proust describes the last visit of the ailing Swann in the salon in which he had spent so many hours. Disease has contorted his face, and Proust’s portrayal of him focuses, like an anti-Semitic caricature, on his nose. Swann’s nose has become “enormous, tumid, crimson,” fit for a clown or “an old Hebrew.”

What has caused this? There are various causes, physical and mental, which the author lists without deciding among them. The primary cause is the disease, but it is possible that in the last days of the Jew Swann, racial features stand out more prominently (Proust uses the accepted term “la race”).

There is also another possible reason. Together with the characteristic facial features, the dying man displays “a sense of moral solidarity with the rest of the Jews, a solidarity which Swann seemed to have forgotten throughout his life and which, one after another, his mortal illness, the Dreyfus case and the anti-Semitic propaganda had reawakened.”

That would have been enough to encapsulate the ambivalence of the character, but Proust adds two peculiar sentences. Certain Jews, he writes, who are refined and socially sophisticated, are sometimes revealed in their last hours as one of two opposite types: “a cad and a prophet.”

Swann, Proust observes, “had arrived at the age of the prophet.” Swann-Moses no longer disavowed his origins, but was not privileged to enter the promised land of the creative work.

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