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Proust at the Morgan

Mitchell Abidor
March 2, 2013

img001by Mitchell Abidor

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of entry into the world of one of the most cultivated, worldly, charming, loved, and ultimately saddest Jews of the 20th century, Charles Swann, the main character in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which was published at the author's expense in Paris in 1913.

In celebration of this event the Morgan Library, in collaboration with the Bibliothéque Nationale de France, has assembled a room full of documents and images relating to the seven-volume book and its genesis. Although the exhibit assumes much of the viewer (better explanatory texts would help even French-speaking visitors), it provides a fascinating portrait of Proust's creative process, and, to a much lesser extent, the human process that went into the book.

Proust, the baptized son of a Jewish mother (née Weil) and Catholic father, had a wide circle of Jewish friends, and Jews and the attitude towards them feature prominently throughout the seven volumes. He had a strange and in some ways unattractive relationship with his own Jewishness, however. A young man at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, he was deeply involved in the battle to defend and save the unjustly accused captain. The Affair and anti-Semitism crop up throughout In Search of Lost Time (which is better known by English readers as Remembrance of Things Past), and they are often used to demonstrate the decency or lack of same of the books' characters — and to add plot turns, as when it is revealed that the ultra-Catholic, haughty Prince and Princess de Guermantes are, unlike their peers and unknown to each other, unlikely supporters of the Dreyfusard cause.

Proust himself attended the trial of Emile Zola after the publication of "J'Accuse," signed petitions in defense of the prisoner, and attended Dreyfusard rallies, at one of which the great socialist leader Jean Jaurès was the featured speaker. Although Proust also saw Jaurès speak on one other occasion (at the national Assembly in a debate on Crete), it is a sign of how topsy-turvy France was in the late 19th century that someone so obsessed with the French aristocracy and high society as Proust would go out of his way to attend a rally organized by the left.

One shouldn't think that because Proust defended Dreyfus he was at all comfortable with the half of himself that was Jewish. He was a regular reader of the royalist and anti-Semitic journal l'Action Française — one of the leading voices against Dreyfus — and wrote admiring letters to the leader of the movement of the same name, Charles Maurras. His closest friends included Lucien Daudet (imputations of a sexual component to their relationship led to Proust’s fighting a duel over the matter), brother of Léon Daudet, a member of Action Française and a vicious anti-Semitic publicist, and son of the novelist Alphonse Daudet, who funded France's first important anti-Semitic newspaper, Edouard Drumont's La Libre Parole. Dinners chez the Daudets featured anti-Jewish diatribes that Proust did nothing to combat.

Significant in this regard is a letter Proust wrote to his friend Robert de Montesquiou, one of the models for the novel's Baron de Charlus. The letter was written the day after a dinner at which his friend had expressed anti-Semitic opinions. Proust explains that he said nothing when asked his opinion on the subject because "I am Catholic like my father and brother, on the other hand, my mother is Jewish. You understand that this is a strong enough reason for me to abstain from this type of discussion." It was "more respectful" for him to write this to his friend rather to tell him so directly, but he certainly gives no hint that he would have disputed his friend's opinions. In fact, a passage in the letter speaks volumes about Proust: "I don't have the independence on the subject to have about it the ideas I would perhaps have." What Proust is saying is that had he been freed of the fact of his mother's Jewishness, he would be free, if the spirit so moved him, to hate Jews as much as did Montesquiou. Certainly there was an element of excessive politesse at play in his response, as amply evinced in Proust's letters, yet it is solely his mother who is defined as being in any way Jewish. His own ethnic make-up passes unmentioned.

The character of Charles Swann in Swann's Way was based largely on Charles Haas, wealthy friend of royals and member of the ultra-selective Jockey Club, which, despite his wealth and connections, he was blackballed from four times until his heroism during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 gained him entry. Proust frequented the same society circles as Haas, and one of his friends would later write that Haas' "exceptional success caused Marcel Proust's snobbery to dream, and his entire oeuvre gradually grew from his dream of youth. Yes, In Search of Lost Time and especially Swann's Way grow from his meditation on the case of Charles Haas, member of the Jockey Club though an Israelite . . . All of the rest collected around the figure of Haas-Swann, both the seed and a branch of this tree of infinite leaves."

Sadly, none of this appears in the Morgan exhibit, which focuses strictly on the literary work involved in the book (though included are postcards of sites mentioned and of Proust's friends and family). Yet once we accept that the focus is the production and not the sources of the work, the exhibit is priceless.

Included are the strangely-sized art-deco notebooks he’d received as a gift, in which he noted characteristics he'd later give the characters in his books, and the notebooks in which he wrote his books in his barely legible handwriting, rendered even more illegible by his crossing-out and marginal entries. No admirer of Proust's masterpiece will not be moved to see, in Proust's own hand, Swann's final words on Odette, the woman he had obsessively pursued and made himself ridiculous over: "To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type."

Similarly, we can see in the first set of proofs how the famous first words of the novel, "Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure" ("For a long time I used to go to bed early") were not the original opening lines, which were originally, "During the last months that I passed in the suburbs of Paris . . ." — and that the immortal opening words only gradually appeared and are handwritten over the typescript several lines in.

The volume of his corrections to the book in all its stages of production is frightening; there are pages with other pages attached to them with additional text, as well as crossing-out and marginal additions. On one page of the typed text, thirteen of the twenty-seven original lines are completely crossed out, and only five of the remaining original lines have no corrections at all.

Again it is the first page that shows Proust's obsessive concern for getting it right. The first word of the second sentence in the typed text was originally "parfois" ("sometimes"), which he replaced with "souvent" ("often"), which he then again replaced with "parfois." On the proofs the word originally appears as "parfois," which is again replaced by "souvent," which is then replaced by "parfois" yet again, though this time following a semi-colon as part of the first sentence and not as the first word of the second! In the final version the much-worked over words appear as a discrete sentence, and it is "parfois" that emerges victorious: "Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte. . .” ("Sometimes, hardly was my candle out . . .")

Given the amount of working, re-working, and re-re-working on display here, it hardly comes as a surprise that Proust didn’t live to see the publication of the completed work.

Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.