The Jewishness of Marcel Proust at the mahJ

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The Jewishness of Marcel Proust at the mahJ
“If I didn’t respond yesterday to what you asked about Jews, it was because of this simple reason: I am Catholic like my father and my brother, while on the other hand, my mother is Jewish. You understand that’s reason enough to abstain from this kind of discussion.” (A letter to Count Robert de Montesquiou, May 1896) On November 18, 2022, we mark the 100th anniversary of Marcel Proust’s death in Paris, in that famous corked-lined room that muffled the noises outside his self-imposed confinement. He had celebrated his 51st birthday that previous July 10th. Born into a cushy haut-bourgeois family in 1871, six months after the tumultuous Franco-Prussian War ended on January 28th, he began life in Auteuil in the 16th arrondissement, ensconced in privileges that wealth and rank could enjoy. The current exhibition Proust from his Mother’s Side, at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme (Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, or mahJ), tries to make the case that Proust’s mother Jeanne Clémence Weil, who belonged to a prominent, assimilated Jewish French family (what the French called israélite, as opposed to the juif/ French-born Jews vs. the newly-arrived Jewish immigrants), exerted a major influence on his development, hence imposing a “Jewishness” (judéité) that few scholars or fans have bothered to explore. Anaïs Beauvais, Madame Jeanne Clémence Proust, 1878 Oil on canvas, 78 x 65.5 cm, Illiers-Combray, Maison de tante Léonie – Musée Proust This premise is quite courageous in view of the literature on Proust’s Jewish side, which often argues against making too much of his access to Jewish culture and traditions. Robert Alter wrote in his New Republic review of Evelyn Bloch-Dano’s Madame Proust: A Biography, translated by celebrated Yale professor Alice Kaplan, (University of Chicago Press, 2008): “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.” Paul Nadar, Dr. Adrien Proust, c. 1890 Charenton, Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine I entered the current Proust exhibition at mahJ (closing August 28th) with Alter’s opinion in mind and left half-converted. Not that I felt Proust’s self-declared Catholic identity should be set aside, but rather that the thesis for this show is overdetermined in order to “jew-dify” Proust beyond his own comfort level, his preferences for identification. In the mahJ director’s introduction, Paul Salmona identified Proust as “un modern marrane.” The French call this “marranism” – a term borrowed from the Spanish word “Marrano” – the converted Jews, the “hidden” Jews, the ones who chose to stay when the Spanish Inquisition tried to expel the entire Jewish population. The French word refers to the mixed Jews or the assimilated Jews whose outward appearance and manners conform to Christian norms, but once in private, alone with family or co-religious friends, their authentic Jewishness breaks through. Marrano is an ugly slang expression; it means “pig.” I wonder if Salmona knows this.
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Lead photo credit : Jacques-Emile Blanche, Marcel Proust, 1892 Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 60.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay

More in history in Paris, history museum, Marcel Proust, Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.

Comments

  • Hazel Smith
    2022-08-22 01:04:27
    Hazel Smith
    Thanks for such an interesting article Beth. It was all new to me. I was wondering throughout that Proust probably didn't want to be unmasked in this way. An aside, Daniel Halevy was also a close friend of anti-semite Edgar Degas. That would have made quite a party!

    REPLY

    • Beth Gersh-Nesic
      2022-08-22 09:24:26
      Beth Gersh-Nesic
      Hi Hazel, Quite a party, indeed. Yes, Degas was an anti-Dreyfusard and dropped the Halévy family after years of dining with them and requiring participation in his photos after dinner. But you know all this. I love when you and Marilyn Brouwer write about this period too. Merci beaucoup, Beth

      REPLY

  • Barnaby Conrad III
    2022-08-20 05:47:37
    Barnaby Conrad III
    This is a wonderful, insightful essay that urges me to get back to Proust---and to Paris where I lived in the Eighties. I am reminded of a scene described to me by a Parisian friend, whose ancestor was the Duc de Gramont. Just as Proust was signing a book to him, the duke said gruffly, "Pas des sentiments, monsieur Proust, pas des sentiments." Barnaby Conrad III

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    • Beth Gersh-Nesic
      2022-08-22 09:26:34
      Beth Gersh-Nesic
      Hello, M. Conrad, This is hilarious! Thank you so much for sharing this anecdote. Warm wishes, Beth

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  • Sandra Smith
    2022-08-19 06:32:03
    Sandra Smith
    The British critic and poet Clive James once said that Proust waited half a lifetime to write a work that takes half a lifetime to read... An astute comment. Fantastic article Beth. Thank you!

    REPLY

    • Beth Gersh-Nesic
      2022-08-19 11:01:35
      Beth Gersh-Nesic
      Hi Sandra, Thank you so much for reading this article and this perfect quote for the occasion. Is half a lifetime enough? I am almost finished with the last book and ready to start A la Recherche all over again. Beth

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