Near the beginning of Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), the first volume in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (long known in English under the Shakespearean title chosen by its first translator, C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Remembrance of Things Past, but now by the less poetic In Search of Lost Time), Charles Swann remarks that there are only three or four books essential to read in a lifetime. For many readers, Proust’s novel in seven volumes is one such book and also among the most challenging. This year marks the centenary of Proust’s death in November 1922. Even if Proust is not an easy read, his books, like those of Camus and Celine, are among those most in demand according to Parisian secondhand booksellers. Paris is hosting three important exhibitions on the writer this year. “Marcel Proust: On his mother’s side,” a new show at Paris’s Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, explores Proust’s maternal Jewish family.1 This exhibition follows one at the Musée Carnavalet on Proust’s life in Paris and precedes another at the Bibliothèque Nationale that will display manuscripts from its own collection this fall.
Judging Proust’s Jewishness by his magnum opus presents difficulties. The novel’s protagonist, Marcel, who resembles Proust in name and many other respects, hasn’t a drop of Jewish blood in him. But several key figures in Proust’s great work are Jewish, notably Charles Swann, the highly civilized aesthete who fits easily into society, and his antithesis, the pushy, aggressive Albert Bloch, who later renames himself Jacques du Rozier, which seems a tease on Proust’s part since the rue de Rosiers was then a part of Paris’s Jewish quarter. Proust has rarely been branded as a “Jewish” writer; his work remained in print during the Occupation and was even assigned as a set reading in the French school system in 1942. Antoine Compagnon, an advisor on this exhibition and the author of Proust du côté juif, published this year by Proust’s publisher, Gallimard, has discovered however that Proust, on his death, was also embraced by magazines such as La Revue juive and Menorah, issues of which feature at the exhibition’s end.
The exhibition opens with a section on the Weil family, to which Jeanne Weil, Proust’s mother, belonged. The Weils, who came to France from Württemberg, were famous in Paris’s Jewish community, producing lawyers, magistrates, and a composer of a successful operetta. Jeanne Proust was dismayed to discover that her father had arranged to be cremated, a practice as heretical to devout Jews as it was to Catholics before the Second Vatican Council. It may have been through Masonic connections that Dr. Adrien Proust met and married Jeanne Weil. The possibility that Dr. Proust was a Mason suggests that his Catholicism might have been less than fervent.
At the time of the Dreyfus controversy that raged in France during the 1890s, Proust, a fervent Dreyfusard, told his friend, Robert de Montesquiou, who was as convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt as Proust was of his innocence, that while his father and brother were Catholic, he was Jewish through his mother. Jeanne Proust was highly cultivated, and it seems that much of the charm and erudition that aided Proust in the social world and later in his writing came from his mother.
The “laboratory of writing” section of the exhibition compares Proust’s detailed corrections and rewriting on the edges of his manuscripts to commentaries on the margins of the Talmud, even if the resemblance is merely a coincidence. Proust’s favorite book was the Bible, and he was also familiar with Jewish mysticism. Jeanne Proust was fluent in German and English, and she did much of the translating into French (Proust’s English being plodding at best) of two books by John Ruskin that Proust published in 1904 and 1906. Ruskin’s writings on Venice have been widely celebrated, and the city was important for Proust, too, hence the appearance in this exhibition of several Venice sketches by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, now in France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, and Monet’s magnificent 1908 painting of the Grand Canal. Whistler was a model for Proust’s character Elstir, as were Monet and the artist Paul Helleu, known as the “Watteau of seaside painting.” The exhibition benefits from the curation of Isabelle Cahn, a curator at the Musée d’Orsay and an expert on painting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a distinguished list of exhibitions to her credit.
Proust’s observations on painting are among the virtues of his writing, and much of the exhibition’s aesthetic pleasure comes from seeing paintings connected to “Proust’s worlds,” to quote from the title of one section. One gem is René François Xavier Prinent’s Le Balcon (The Balcony) from 1905–6, which depicts the social world in which Proust circulated. In the same vein, several figures who inspired Proust characters appear in Henri Gervex’s Une Soirée au Pré-Catalan (1909). Delightful pictures set near the Norman coast by Vuillard, Boudin, and Helleu also seem to illustrate Proust’s fiction. Swann, ever the aesthete, was inclined to describe people by comparing their looks to those of figures in paintings. He compares Odette, his tormented love, to a Botticelli, and Bloch to Gentile Bellini’s Portrait of Mehmed I (1480), borrowed for this exhibition from London’s National Gallery. Swann himself was based on Charles Haas, seen standing on the edge and a little apart, among the other members of the Circle of the Rue Royale, one of the few gentlemen’s clubs then open to Jews in James Tissot’s group portrait of 1868; and on Charles Ephrussi, the editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts.
Conservative by temperament and too sensible to be a political animal, Proust seems to have rarely voted, if ever. His one great moment of political engagement was over the Dreyfus affair, which divided the Proust family. (Proust’s father was convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt, Proust’s mother and her sons of his innocence.) Proust described the effect of the affair on social life in his first unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, as well in À la recherche. His friendship with Montesquiou survived their disagreement over Dreyfus, just as it did Montesquiou’s discovery that he was a model for Proust’s character Baron de Charlus. Portraits of Montesquiou and samples of Montesquiou’s own painting appear in the exhibition’s section on Proust’s homosexual world. People seemed more apt to accept political differences in that age than they are now.
This scintillating exhibition and its excellent catalogue add much to our knowledge of the author and will likely reveal something new to even the most devoted readers of Proust.