Madame Proust: A Biography
by Evelyne Bloch-dano
Reviewed by Robert Alter
The New Republic Online
It has never been clear what, if anything, should be made of the fact that Proust's mother was a Jew. This genealogical fact means that in the patently irrelevant terms of Jewish law, he, too, could be called a Jew, while in the equally irrelevant terms of biology he was half-Jewish. Both Marcel and his younger brother Robert were baptized as Catholics in infancy, though that ritual was no more than a social gesture on the part of their secular parents, and perhaps also an attempt to placate their pious paternal grandmother. Their mother, Jeanne Weil Proust, never contemplated conversion, remained staunchly loyal to her family of origins, and was laid to rest in a Jewish ceremony with a rabbi officiating. In any case, Marcel Proust was exquisitely acculturated as a member of the French haute bourgeoisie (with abundant aristocratic connections), and the case could certainly be made that the only disruption of his sense of unqualified belonging to the French society into which he was born was the Dreyfus Affair, which erupted in 1894, when he was twenty-three, and which continued to shake the social and political structure of France for years to come.
The plausible minimalist view of Proust's Jewishness is that, attenuated as it was, it predisposed him to perceive more sharply than he might otherwise have done the hypocrisy and the hidden wellsprings of hostility toward Jews that were exposed in the fierce debates over Captain Dreyfus's alleged treason. These debates, or at least their fallout, figure significantly in the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Beyond that, one could mention the acerbic portraits of the Blochs, father and son, and the representation of Swann, a splendidly cultivated creature of refined society who, after the Dreyfus upheaval, begins to look as though his Jewish ancestry had all along led his high-placed friends to view him as not quite one of their own.
Yet Proust scarcely had to have been Jewish to write any of this. Scathing portraits of socially illusioned types, whatever their religious or ethnic or class background, are among his most formidable strengths, as is the representation of ambiguous social identity that triggers both snobbery and hypocrisy. And the famous comparison between Zionism and the secret society of homosexuals in the great prelude to Sodom and Gomorrah could be taken as no more than an elaborate rhetorical maneuver. It is hardly a resounding affirmation of its author's Jewishness.
The opposite tack is to claim, as some critics have done over the decades, that there is something indelibly Jewish about Proust's imagination. The weaker version of this claim is the more or less sociological contention that marginality generates a certain alertness of social observation (though it is unclear to what degree Proust might have felt himself to be marginal). The grander expression of the claim, perhaps especially attractive to non-Jewish critics disposed to see timeless and idealized characteristics in Jews, is the notion that Proust's fiction embodies a profoundly Jewish vision of reality. Thus, Edmund Wilson, writing in 1931 in Axel's Castle, just a few years after the posthumous publication of the last volume of Proust's novel, declares:
There remains in him much of the capacity for apocalyptic moral indignation of the classical Jewish prophet. That tone of lamentation and complaint resounds through his whole book, which, indeed, he scarcely ever drops save for the animated humor of the social scenes, themselves in their implications so bitter, is very un-French and rather akin to Jewish literature.
I cite this early response because it so vividly illustrates how not to talk about a possible Jewish element in Proust's writing. Wilson has loaded the rhetorical dice: "apocalyptic" is the wrong term; "lamentation" is equally suspect; there is no cultural or biographical reason that the Jewish prophets should have meant more to Proust than to any other French writer; and "rather akin to Jewish literature" is a dodge. Moral indignation, after all, abounds also in Balzac and, conveyed chiefly through irony, even in Voltaire, and the French fondness for the withering dissection of men and women in society goes back to La Rochefoucauld. To be fair to Wilson, he offered many strong insights into Proust well before there was a vast body of criticism on which to draw, but these sentences nonetheless demonstrate how the discussion of Proust as a Jewish writer can unsettle fine minds.
It is crucial to get the cultural and social facts of Proust's Jewish background firmly in focus before making claims about how they might have affected his writing, and Evelyne Bloch-Dano's carefully researched biography of Jeanne Weil Proust performs this task admirably. I am obliged to add that it is one of those books that remains useful even though it is in many respects rather annoying and woefully deficient in critical perspective. Bloch-Dano is a writer accustomed to addressing a popular audience, and at times her book wobbles between being a scrupulously documented biography of Proust's mother and an instance of that familiar French genre, the vie romancée. Thus we are invited to imagine the young Jeanne Weil sitting in the family dining room: "Her white summer dress showed off her ivory profile... Her ripe beauty was already that of a woman. Her black eyes with curly lashes, under her thick brows, were focused on her reading. This pre-dinner scene didn't concern her." Portraits attest to the black eyes, thick brows, and curly hair, but the rest is novelistic embroidery. Such rhapsodic representations of Jeanne Weil Proust punctuate Bloch-Dano's narrative, though fortunately they do not pervade it. And mention is never made in this book of the fact that by middle age Madame Proust had become fat and matronly.
There is a vein of vulgarity in Bloch-Dano's writing that is especially regrettable for this subject, which requires above all tact, judiciousness, and fine discrimination. I shall cite only the most egregious expression of this tendency. Early on Bloch-Dano reports the young Jeanne Weil's fondness for Racine's Esther. She then imagines Weil's marriage to the gifted and ambitious physician Adrien Proust, arranged by the Weil parents, as a re-enactment of Esther's marriage to Ahasuerus. This is a rather improbable analogy, because Esther was a foreigner and a commoner who became the consort of an emperor, whereas Jeanne Weil was bringing the resources of her father's immense fortune to a young doctor of humble background who needed the capital in order to establish himself professionally. Adrien Proust, after begetting two sons with Jeanne, appears to have abandoned sexual relations with his wife while pursuing a long line of mistresses, some of them a generation younger than himself. What remained between the two of them was a kind of marital and social solidarity (though they were often apart), and Marcel seems to have been the truest object of his mother's passionate attachment. And yet, when Jeanne dies in 1905, less than two years after her husband, Bloch-Dano writes, in one of the most excruciating concluding sentences of a book that a reader is likely to encounter, "Esther had gone to meet her Ahasuerus."
Another oddity about this historically grounded biography is that almost every time Bloch-Dano says something about traditional Jewish life, she gets it at least slightly wrong. The 613 canonical commandments that the Weil family had ceased to observe appear here as "nearly six hundred." Meat and dairy dishes in a kosher home are characterized as milchtig and fleishtig, with an intrusively incorrect t in both words. Jews are said to eat "fritters" on Purim. (Is she thinking of latkes on Hanukah?) The breaking of the wineglass at the wedding ceremony is said to signify "an indestructible union." The New Testament is also not immune to this plague of errors. Jesus's quotation of Psalms on the cross, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani," "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" is said to be Hebrew, though it is actually Aramaic, which was (as anybody who heard about Mel Gibson's movie should know) Jesus's vernacular. Such confusions are compounded in Alice Kaplan's otherwise serviceable translation by the replication of French transliterations of Yiddish and Hebrew words, rendering them unrecognizable to English readers, who may also wonder about "Agar," Abraham's concubine, or about "the Damas scandal, " or the Damascus blood-libel of 1840.
Happily, all these mistakes do not seriously impinge on the central narrative, because Proust was three generations removed from the world of traditional Jewish practice and learning. What does have a bearing on his life is the social history of the Jews in nineteenth-century France, and in this regard Bloch-Dano's account is often instructive. Her ability to negotiate the trajectory from social history to literature is another matter. As one might expect from the sensibility that joins Esther with her Ahasuerus in the world to come, her reading of the fiction is largely limited to a mechanical lining up of real-life prototypes for figures and scenes in Proust's novel. Still, she does convey a detailed picture of the social world that produced Proust's mother and contrived her intermarriage, and this picture may throw a little light on Proust's fiction.
The rise of Jews in France to economic prominence, and hence also to social prominence, was spectacularly rapid, occurring in the course of just a few decades after the French Revolution. In many respects, this development was closely analogous to what happened in German-speaking lands during this same period, though one senses that France, for all its deep pockets of prejudice, may have been more easily permeable to Jews than Germany. The Jews of France were granted citizenship by the National Constitutional Assembly in 1791, and the subsequent Napoleonic regime, with its rationalist-bureaucratic principle of equal rights for all citizens, consolidated this initial step. Migration from Alsace -- where there was a concentration of Jewish population -- to Paris was a general pattern in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and of a piece with the larger European phenomenon during those years of movement from the provinces to the metropolis. (For this reason, Germanic names such as Heilbronner, Weisweiller, Dreyfus, Oppenheim, Lippman, and of course Rothschild were typically Jewish, and for this reason Balzac chose to give the Jewish banker in Splendors and Miseries of a Courtesan a heavy German accent.)
In the eighteenth century, the Alsatian ancestors of Jeanne Weil on both sides were peddlers, tailors, butchers, and horse traders, with an occasional rabbi in the family line. Her paternal grandfather Baruch made a fortune in the manufacture of porcelain. Her father Nathé -- note how a Hebrew name in the preceding generation had metamorphosed into the French version of a biblical name -- used the capital inherited from his father to become a major player in the Parisian financial world. Of course there were many French Jews who remained poor, but the Weils' path of meteoric ascent was duplicated in many highly visible Jewish families in France in this period.
The tricky question is to what extent they remained Jews as they energetically embraced France. There will be different answers for different families and individuals. Reform congregations were established in France, but they did not have quite the appeal they had in Germany, where the movement was created and its ideology articulated. There was no French equivalent of the scholarly Wissenschaft des Judentums that flourished in Germany in the nineteenth century. French Jews in this period did create the Alliance israélite universelle, but this was chiefly the paternalistic extending of an educational and philanthropic hand to less fortunate brethren in the Maghreb and other benighted areas of the French empire. For the most part, Jews such as the Weils abandoned religious practice, began to intermarry, sometimes converted, and often somehow continued to think of themselves as Jews -- or rather, in the purportedly more refined designation most of them preferred, as israélites. The process of assimilation accelerated from generation to generation, but for the extended family of the Weils in the generation of Jeanne's parents, Bloch-Dano's summary is quite apt: "The Weils were Israelites living in France, but they were not yet Frenchmen who happened to be Israelites, much less ordinary Frenchmen." As late as 1850, neither intermarriage nor conversion had occurred in the Weil family.
The issue of shifting identity has to be framed differently for the young woman who became Proust's mother. Culturally, she grew up thoroughly a Frenchwoman. Socially, a certain difference persisted, because so many of her parents' connections were acculturated Jews like themselves, and because the surrounding network of the extended family remained so strong. Her parents, in deciding to marry her off to a man who was nominally Catholic, were not motivated by an explicit desire to cross religious lines. Adrien Proust was a brilliant doctor with a promising future. Given the resources with which the Weil fortune could provide him, he and his spouse would be able to make their way to the pinnacle of the French bourgeois social world, intersecting with the aristocracy. This was the happiness that Nathé and Adele Weil wanted for their daughter, and the evidence suggests that she on her part fully acquiesced in this project.
France was culturally a Catholic country -- a little different from Germany, where by and large Christian faith, both Lutheran and Catholic, was taken more seriously as religion. (It is noteworthy that the French Enlightenment was for the most part strenuously anti-clerical, whereas its German counterpart did not share this opposition to established faith.) For Jeanne Weil, the Catholicism of the family she entered by marriage was simply part of the tacit social pact to which she had consented. Bloch-Dano nicely states the terms of the deal:
Mass and catechism were part of her duties as a wife and mother, proof of her adaptation to social rituals and etiquette, signs of her desire to integrate. She was faithful to her commitment: the children would have a Catholic upbringing, if not a Catholic faith. Her indifference to religion allowed her to reconcile that attitude with fidelity to her origins, as though she kept her personal identity on one side and her social obligations on the other.
One should add that there was a marked asymmetry in the relationships of Jeanne and Adrien Proust to his widowed Catholic mother and to her Jewish parents. Jeanne remained very close to both her parents, especially her mother, and the Weil family was a vivid presence in the lives of Marcel and Robert as they were growing up. (Adele Weil inspired the loving portrait of the memorable grandmother in Proust's novel.) Although Illiers, the little town where Adrien Proust's mother lived, was barely seventy-five miles from Paris, he took his family there only a couple of times a year. It was there that the attendance at mass was de rigueur, though the church scenes in the "Combray" section of Proust's first volume suggest that the ritual was strictly an aesthetic experience for the young Marcel. Adrien Proust's mother did not come to her son's wedding in Paris, nor did anyone else from his family, whereas the extended family of Weils was present in full force. One might attribute her absence to the dangerous military situation in 1870, though the civil marriage ceremony would have scarcely been to her liking, nor could she have been very enthusiastic about acquiring a Jewish daughter-in-law. Bloch-Dano reports that years later, when the old lady died, Jeanne Weil Proust omitted the customary cross from the obituary notice -- perhaps a symbolic expression of the personal and religious coolness that obtained between her and her husband's mother.
One of the most instructive chapters of this biography is devoted to an investigation of Jeanne's guest book for the period around the turn of the century. The list of 430 guests reflects an extremely busy social life. It includes prominent physicians, political leaders, diplomats, scholars, bankers, lawyers, and judges, a good many of whom were aristocrats. The guest list is also notable for displaying a generous number of Levys and Cohens and the full variety of Judeo-German names of families originally from Alsace or from the Rhineland itself. The Prousts manifestly consorted with the upper echelons of Parisian society, and their sons surely had no doubt that this was the sphere in which they belonged. The irony was that Jews, however assimilated, were an appreciable constituent of this eminent social circle, a fact that would not have escaped the young Marcel. Through baptism and later church instruction, he was identified as a Catholic, but his formative years and his young adulthood abounded in reminders that the family immediately around him retained multiple attachments to a milieu that could be perceived as Jewish. Judaism itself, even for these secularists, was not entirely absent. The late marriage of Jeanne's brother Georges, which took place when Marcel was in his twenties, was to a Jewish woman in a ceremony conducted in a synagogue.
Children are the first to detect the stress lines of contradiction or ambiguity in their parents' posture toward the world. Proust grew up amid multiple manifestations of the persistent Jewish solidarity of his mother's family, though he was perfectly clear that formally he was a Catholic. At the beginning of a letter to Robert de Montesquiou prompted by the vexed issue of the Dreyfus Affair, he writes with ostensible certitude of his own identity: "Yesterday I did not answer the question you put to me about the Jews. For this simple reason: though I am a Catholic like my father and brother, my mother is Jewish. I am sure you understand that this is reason enough for me to refrain from such discussions." His father and brother, he knew perfectly well, were not in the least believers, and so to be a Catholic like them amounted to visible allegiance to the Church as a social institution, which entailed lifecycle events and seemly appearances at the solemnity of Christmas and Easter mass rather than at the solemnity of the Kol Nidre service.
The story of the Weils illustrates the stubborn survival of a residue of Jewish consciousness in circles where the process of assimilation might seem to have been fully consummated. Obviously, large numbers of Jews in the modern period have entirely disappeared into the woodwork of the surrounding society, whether through intermarriage or conversion or the adherence to a modern secular identity beyond religion and ethnicity. But the case of the Weils suggests that even when religion has been left behind, there can remain a certain style of Jewish familial cohesiveness and a sense of social connection with other Jews. Perhaps this is owed to the anomaly that, historically, being a Jew meant not just fealty to a religion but also to a people. To state this anomaly in other terms, there were anthropological differences between the Jews of pre-modern Europe and the Christians among whom they lived, and some of these differences persisted even after the Jews had fully entered the general society.
Proust, as we have seen, definitely did not think of himself as a Jew, and neither should we. In his novel, he chooses to represent the maternal side of the narrator's family as Catholic, which corresponds to his choice of making the narrator heterosexual -- two related maneuvers intended to situate the main story in the majority culture. And he abundantly draws on the imagery of the Catholic church, which clearly speaks to his sensibility. Yet all those hours of his formative years in the capacious bosom of the Weil family were not lost on him. For a writer so acute about discriminating social behavior and the multifarious ways in which social norms shaped individual character, the Weils and their many Jewish friends presented to him a fascinating social alternative within the dominant framework of French society.
Most readers of In Search of Lost Time recall the sharply satiric portrait of the elder Bloch, a figure whose social pretensions are matched only by his capacity for self-delusion. The young Marcel Proust surely had the opportunity to observe Jews of this sort in his grandparents' Parisian home, though one should hasten to add that his novel also displays a rich panorama of good Catholics, such as M. Legrandin in "Combray," who exhibit equally egregious qualities of pretense and snobbery. What is just as interesting as the satiric portrait of the elder Bloch is the anthropological observation of his social milieu. (I quote here from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve.)
M. Bloch senior ... was educated, percipient, affectionate toward his relations. Those relations who were closest to him were particularly attached to him. Especially since in middle-class life, with its multiplicity of smaller worlds (unlike "society," where people are judged by a single standard which is fixed, however absurd and false it may be, and which is, for purposes of comparison, an aggregate derived from the sum total of all elegant people), there will always be supper parties and family celebrations which have as their life and soul somebody who is deemed to be amusing and agreeable, yet who in society proper would be given short shrift.
It is noteworthy that, although we understand that the Bloch family milieu is Jewish, its ethnic identity is left unmentioned here, and is presented instead as an instance of "middle-class life." The convivial parties and family celebrations, operating by rules somehow different from the exacting demands of high society, were a kind of social interaction with which Proust was familiar from childhood through his maternal grandparents and their kinfolk and connections. Even as Proust is satirically exposing Bloch, he expresses a degree of appreciation for the warmth of those family gatherings, which perhaps are not altogether French. Yet if Proust recognizes the warmth of the Bloch family setting, he is too shrewd to sentimentalize it as fuzzy warmth. The sentence that immediately follows the excerpt that I have offered reads: "Also, in those smaller worlds, where the aristocracy's factitious scale of grandeurs does not exist, it is replaced by distinctions which are even sillier." And Proust goes on to describe a particular silliness associated in this family with the figure of Bloch senior. The silliness, too, is something Proust is likely to have encountered in the Jewish milieu of his mother's family.
None of this makes Proust a Jewish writer. Jewish existence in western Europe after the so-called Emancipation was often an amphibious business. The famous image that Kafka proposed in one of his letters -- of a creature stuck with its front paws extended forward into the German world and its rear paws stuck back in the world of Jewish origins -- is more aggressively grotesque than anything one would associate with the milieu of Jeanne Weil's family, but it points to an awkward contradiction not entirely absent from the predicament of French Jews in the later nineteenth century. Proust's probing vision, I would infer, picked up this amphibian quality of his maternal forebears, and he himself, despite his avowed Catholicism, may not have been entirely free of it.
What is discomfiting to the social consciousness of the individual can be a resource for the artist. Proust's epic project involved creating an elaborate set of finely nuanced yet indelible images of men and women as social animals, responding to the dictates of their milieu, powerfully motivated and often woefully misguided by the horizon of social expectations that defined their world. This synoptic view of the realm of society required fine discriminations between the behavior of different classes and groups. Proust from childhood had known an affluent Parisian milieu that replicated the manners and habits of the general French milieu of the same class and economic standing and yet retained certain differential traits. It seems plausible that his consciousness of this sub-group sharpened his awareness in his effort to define society's kaleidoscope of shifting codes and practices. This familiarity with the residually Jewish world of the Weils afforded him a perspective more socially specific than that of the vague notion of marginality that is often associated with him. Madame Proust's social legacy to her son was not to pass on to him her ancestral heritage, but, through the sheer vibrant presence of her family, to impart to him a doubleness of perception that helped to make him a shrewd and searching chronicler of French society.
Robert Alter's most recent book is The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.