While the celebrated French novelist Marcel Proust was baptized as an infant and raised a Catholic, his mother was born a Jew, he had much contact with his Jewish relatives, and numerous critics have commented on the Jewish themes and characters in his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past. But recently published drafts and notes for the novel, long thought to have been lost, show these themes in a different light. Mitchell Abidor points to one especially striking deviation: in the manuscripts, the anonymous narrator of Remembrance of Things Past is “Marcel,” his unnamed mother is “Jeanne” (the name of Proust’s actual mother) rather than simply “mother,” and so forth. And this reveals something deeper:
The characters’ actual names, which return us to their bearers, are a reminder of the great unspoken trait of the finished work: the Jewishness of one side of Marcel’s family. . . . The effacing of Marcel’s own Jewishness in the Narrator [of the final version] is one of the most striking characteristics of Proust’s work, in which the Dreyfus affair, Jewishness, and Jewish characters feature prominently.
The de-Judaization of the Narrator was not the product of family resentment. To the contrary, Proust adored his mother above all people in the world, and his bemused affection for his Jewish grandmother is obvious. Proust’s Jewish relatives were financially successful and at first they are not all anonymous.
In one telling passage, Proust explains a character’s behavior as a product of “the memory of the humiliations it is rare a Jew did not feel in his childhood, a kind of fear of being scorned, of being looked on poorly.”
In the early versions included here, as in his life, Proust’s Jewishness played a part in his public and private activities, in his friendships, and his family relations. But there was nothing straightforward about it in either case. Through the magic of fiction and transmogrification of characters, Proust’s own Jewishness was disappeared by disappearing that of his relatives. . . . The fictional Marcel obliterated any trace of the Jewish half of his background. . . . And yet the finished novel is a markedly Jewish book.
The early parts of [the novel] take place at the height of the Dreyfus affair, and even in the world of social snobbery in which the narrator spends his time, his companions’ position on the guilt or innocence of the captain serves to define them. Proust was a supporter of Dreyfus, and in one of the oddest moments of the period, he even signed a petition in support of Dreyfus, at the request of [the Gentile poet and essayist] Anatole France. But the Marcel Proust who defended Dreyfus was also a regular reader of only one newspaper, the royalist, anti-Dreyfusard, and anti-Semitic L’Action Française.