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In search of the lost time of a gay Jewish novelist

In a new book, Saul Friedländer shows how an analytical approach that made him an acclaimed Holocaust historian, can explicate a gay writer of Jewish origin.

“Proustian Uncertainties,” concerns the French novelist Marcel Proust, whose “In Search of Lost Time” offers emotionally complex narration and memories linked to sexuality and Judaism.

Perhaps surprisingly, this subject matter is a natural choice for Friedländer. His writings on the Holocaust include vivid narrative content from contemporary personal accounts by European Jews suffering under Fascism.

In interviews, Friedländer has often stressed that he feels most at home in the French language and French culture, although he was born in Prague.

Saul Friedländer

Saul Friedländer: Author of “Proustian Uncertainties” Image by Gil Kenan

As his memoirs recount, his family moved to France in 1938. His parents, assimilated Jews who were later murdered at Auschwitz, chose not to have him circumcised; later, this made it possible for him to be concealed in a Catholic school near Vichy during the Nazi Occupation.

After the war, he studied in Paris, and French remains the language he speaks with most comfort and enjoyment, as can be seen from online lectures and interviews.

The pleasure principle in language is a part of Friedländer’s Proustian project, as much as fascination for Proust’s historical moment. Last January, Friedländer, now 88, told the Jüdische Allgemeine, a weekly newspaper for German Jewry, that he chose Proust as subject “to end up in a world of beauty and not with these terrible subjects (schrecklichen Themen) that I’ve dealt with my whole life.”

Taking literature as life-enhancement, Friedländer wrote a previous study on Kafka, to whom he felt close connections, given his family’s Prague background.

Even more intimately, the mother-obsessed narration of “In Search of Lost Time” struck a chord with Friedländer, after his attempts to cope with his own parents’ tragic fate. As Friedländer has recounted, a return in adulthood to a Paris milk bar that sold strawberry shakes to himself and his mother decades before failed to reproduce the magic effect of Proust’s madeleine sponge cake, which resurrected the narrator’s childhood memories.

Nevertheless, Friedländer, who has published a book on the limits of psychohistory inspired by his own years as a patient in therapy described in his autobiography, has his own techniques for reviving and evaluating memory and history.

Friedländer admits that he is no Proust specialist, unlike the standard biographers Jean-Yves Tadié and William Carter.

Instead, he relied on secondary sources in English to patiently and perceptively put the reader into the historical context of Proust’s story, to explain why Proust and his narrator use negative language about Jews and gays.

Friedländer’s suggestions sometimes contain artful Yiddishkeit, as when he likens Proust to Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Proust’s narrator, Friedländer declares, in an “unintentional role” is “like the golem who, in a famous Jewish legend, has escaped from the rabbi who created him and starts destroying the defenses the rabbi had erected against himself and against the enemy.”

Of course, Proust was highly conscious of everything he did when writing fiction. Yet by deeming the narrator in “In Search of Lost Time” the “voice of Proust’s unconscious,” Friedlander is attempting to explain what he sees as unresolved contradictions in Proust’s novel and life, which trouble him as a Holocaust historian. For any historian, ambiguities and self-contradictions are problematic uncertainties, whereas professional students of literature might just see them as part of the art of fiction.

Then there is the moral dimension, in which Proust, preoccupied with the theme of cruelty, opted to remain friends with anti-Semites such as the journalist Léon Daudet. Friedlander opines:

“I may be speaking from a post-Second World War viewpoint, but one cannot escape some facts: Proust couldn’t help admiring one of the chief French anti-Jewish agitators of his day. Clearly, his feelings toward Jews and his own Jewishness were utterly confused at best, notwithstanding his attitude against injustice in the Dreyfus Affair; and all of this, notwithstanding being aware of his own Jewish heritage. Or was it because of it?”

Friedländer proposes that Proust wanted to make his narrator more like him, a gay Jewish man, but was afraid of alienating readers. Proust scholars have asserted that he believed, as he told André Gide, that artistry in fiction requires never speaking in the first person singular: “You can say anything, as long as you never say ‘I.’”

So Proust deliberately included mockery of Jews and homophobic language in his novel as conscious artistic choices, showing the society of his time.

As an example of further uncertainties, Friedländer asserts that Proust “did not hide his homosexuality,” but his narrator did. Yet recent biographers have argued that Proust’s narrator may be deceptive about his purported heterosexuality, but Proust himself was by no means out of the closet.

Proust spoke of his sexuality to close friends, but his status in society required that he be neither too assertively Jewish during the fraught time of the Dreyfus Affair which ripped Paris society apart, nor openly gay.

Indeed, Proust fought a duel in 1897 with a rival author, Jean Lorrain, who had publicly implied that one of Proust’s male friends might be his lover.

Among the intricate, oft-debated details of Proust’s private life, Friedländer repeatedly mentions Proust’s “unrequited” love for his chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli, but today’s Proust specialists, among them Kazuyoshi Yoshikawa, who translated Proust’s novel into Japanese, explain that Proust and Agostinelli may have had an intimate, requited relationship after all.

As literary historian Elisabeth Ladenson noted, Proust was not just a gay Jew, he was a gay Jewish snob. Snootiness, linked to his position in Parisian upper class gatherings, governed Proust’s behavior as much as other aspects of his inner self.

In certain ways, Proust’s self-aware decisions about what to include in his novel defy psychohistorical dissection. Proust himself showed no interest in reading Freud’s works as Friedländer perceptively notes.

Ultimately, Friedländer concludes that for him, Proust’s novel lacks a tragic sense, as it rarely evokes the deaths of characters; his narrator “does not awaken much sympathy, nor does the personality of Marcel Proust, from what one knows of him…There is nothing about some ultimate questions, about preoccupations with any kind of transcendence, in Proust. In other words, in Proust there is no place for sin and redemption as there is in Dostoevsky, or in Tolstoy for that matter. The author was agnostic, but that should be irrelevant regarding the immense expanse of human types described. We miss the tragic dimension and we miss the metaphysical one or what could also be the affirmation of human freedom and self-assertion (or self-creation), such as is found less than two decades later in Existentialism.”

Correctly identifying a lack of portentous high seriousness in Proust that will be later discernable in writings by Camus and Sartre, Friedländer deliberately undervalues a key element of Proust in the original French, his laugh-out-loud wit.

Yet even if Proust was someone who Friedländer would not want to have shared a madeleine cake or strawberry milkshake with, readers can only be glad that the powerful analytical eye of a great Jewish historian has been turned to the novelist’s immortal masterpiece.

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