Proust’s Judaism

Proust on the Jewish side

by Antoine Compagnon

Gallimard, 432 p. ill., 32 €

“There is no longer anyone, not even me, since I cannot get up, who goes to visit, along the Rue du Repos, the little Jewish cemetery where my grandfather, following the rite he never never understood, went every year to lay a pebble on his parents’ grave. » This sentence of Marcel Proust, often quoted but from a long unknown source, does it emphasize the disappearance of a rite, or its persistence? Does it express, on Proust’s part, an attachment to maternal Jewishness, or a forgetfulness of it without regret?

The double enigma of these lines (that of their origin, that of their meaning) opens the investigation of Antoine Compagnon on the traces of the “Jewish side” of Proust. The critic does not look for any “key” to the work in the life and origins of the author of the Against Sainte Beuvebut reconstructs a debate, held in the 1920s, on these complex relationships of Proust to Judaism, of which it highlights the issues and actors.

Refute a supposed Proustian anti-Semitism

For what purposes? Firstly, to challenge modern readings denouncing a supposed Proustian anti-Semitism, a “self-hatred” embodied in the “Research” by the characters of Swann and Bloch. However, Compagnon shows that the prosecution documents in this anti-Semitism trial are the same as those presented by the young French Zionists of the 1920s to enlist Proust under their banner. Above all, beyond the effective refutation of ill-founded accusations, the book questions the place taken by Proust in these reflections on Jewish identity.

→ CRITICAL. Proust on the trail of “Research”

His characters are the first material: the complete assimilation of Bloch, who became Jacques du Rozier, is confronted with the rediscovered Judaism of Swann in the midst of the Dreyfus affair, hailed by many as a true Zionist prototype. But the investigations of young intellectuals do not stop at fiction: the style is solicited, sometimes brought closer to rabbinical writing, by its infinite ramifications which recall the proliferation of Talmudic, even cabalistic commentary; moreover, the comparison, which has become classic, of Proust with Montaigne proves to be a euphemism for describing the Jewish origins of the two authors.

Antoine Compagnon retraces these readings, but above all he depicts the readers, from André Spire to Georges Cattaui via Albert Cohen, in a gallery of striking portraits. Just as the narrator revived “all of Combray” from his cup of tea, Compagnon revives an entire society from the archives he examines. He goes through the genealogical tree of the Weils (maiden name of Jeanne, mother of Marcel), with multiple and bushy branches, and even ends up solving the enigma of the initial sentence, by a scientific coup de theater which evokes the revelations punctuating the narrator’s story: or how research can, on occasion, take on the trappings of “Research”.


On the side of Jeanne’s

The exhibition “Marcel Proust on the side of the mother”, dedicated to Proust’s Jewishness, is the second in this centenary, after that of the Carnavalet Museum on the real and imaginary Paris of the writer (The cross of December 28) and before that of the autumn at the BnF, on his manuscripts. The sumptuous catalog published by the museum gives a beautiful approach, unfolding like the novel of the Proust-Weil family (maiden name of Jeanne Proust, about which Évelyne Bloch-Dano had published an excellent biography in 2004) and that relations between Judaism and society during the Belle Époque. The study does not omit the most difficult points, including the Dreyfus affair and the rise of anti-Semitism. The documents (photographs, works of art, etc.) shed light on this family, social and cultural history, which is also that of a world opening up to the painful XXand century.

Sabine Audrerie

Until August 28 at the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris. Info. :


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