Marcel Proust’s Jewish Problem

June 17, 2019 | Robert Siegel
About the author:

Although he was baptized as a child, Marcel Proust was born to a Jewish mother. In his major work, Remembrance of Things Past, the protagonist and narrator, also named Marcel, resembles the author in almost every way—except, notably, for the absence of Jewish ancestry. Instead, Proust seems to place this burden on the narrator’s friend Charles Swann, for whom the book’s third volume is named. Robert Siegel comments:

Swann was a Jew, at least in the terms by which Proust probably saw himself as half-Jewish—by ancestry, not by faith or practice. The Swanns were at least nominally Catholic but . . . Swann bears the suspicion of being a modern-day converso, which is how I have come to see him. We know of his Jewishness because others allude to his family background, as if hinting at generations of skeletons in the closet; as for his own view of his family’s origins, Swann gives away nothing.

He is the 19th-century Jew-by-genealogy par excellence, who epitomizes the social class that made Paris the jewel of the Western world. He is admitted to the super-exclusive Jockey Club, a measure of acceptance at the time typically barred to Jews not named Rothschild. He is an art collector and expert, a maven to aristocrats whose palace walls and budgets exceed their knowledge of painting. . . .

Neither Proust nor the fictional Marcel has much positive to say about Jews. [By contrast], an unambiguously Jewish character, Marcel’s onetime schoolmate Albert Bloch, is brilliant but uncouth, a caricature of the pushy, ill-mannered Jew of anti-Semitic tropes.

What makes the Jewishness of Bloch and Swann important to the novel is the backdrop of the great political issue of turn-of-the-century Paris, the Dreyfus affair. . . . Marcel is a convinced Dreyfusard—a believer in [Alfred Dreyfus’s] innocence. So is Bloch. And so is Swann. Toward the end of his life, Swann openly despises the anti-Semites of the aristocracy, but, knowing them well, he cautions the younger and more headstrong Bloch to act discreetly. . . . [W]hen Swann publicly identifies himself with the Dreyfusard cause, the perfect converso encounters a social inquisition in the salons and palaces where the fruits of his aesthetic wisdom hang on the walls. In the eyes of the [aristocratic] Duc de Guermantes, Swann’s position on Dreyfus is not just wrong, but disloyal.

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