Someone like Maman

Elisabeth Ladenson

ma chere petite maman...

The heroic image of Proust in his cork-lined room, valiantly racing against death to finish his masterpiece, is now so ingrained that it eclipses that of the spoiled 30-year-old who left messages for his mother complaining about noise made by the servants; bullied her into throwing dinner parties for people who sneered at the family; and, later, challenged the father of a young man he had flirted with to a duel because the son had failed to respond with sufficient indignation to rumours about Proust’s sexual tendencies.

The anecdotes abound, one of them about the party game now known as the Proust Questionnaire. Answering a series of questions that might have been designed by a school guidance counsellor, the adolescent Proust responded along resolutely matrocentric lines: ‘Greatest unhappiness? Being separated from Maman. Favourite heroine? Someone like Maman.’

A nominal Catholic, Proust was the recipient of Jewish mothering of an intensity rarely seen outside the early works of Woody Allen or Philip Roth. A la recherche has been characterised as a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Jewish homosexual, and narrated by a Gentile heterosexual with an inordinate interest in Jewishness and homosexuality. There is some truth in this, although Proust was only half-Jewish, and did not think of himself as a Jew. But his opinion on the matter held little weight with either Jews or anti-semites, groups – one tiny, one large – that between them accounted for a large proportion of the population of France around the turn of the century.

Jeanne Proust, née Weil, was born in 1849 into a rich, relatively assimilated Jewish family which had moved to Paris from Alsace in the early 19th century. The politician and social reformer Adolphe Crémieux was her great-uncle, the philosopher Henri Bergson a cousin by marriage. One of the genealogical charts Evelyne Bloch-Dano provides in her biography even demonstrates that Proust was related to Karl Marx. Jeanne Weil received an unusually strong education for a girl of that period, although Bloch-Dano can only speculate about how much of her erudition was a result of formal schooling and how much transmitted by her mother, Adèle Berncastel. Either way, we learn a great deal about the mores of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie.

It remains a mystery what exactly led to her marriage at 21 to Adrien Proust, an ambitious doctor 15 years her senior. Jeanne had a considerable dowry and was set eventually to inherit enormous wealth. Dr Proust was hardly rich, and his professional credentials did not carry the cachet they later would (Bloch-Dano notes that while medicine was generally thought of as an honourable profession in France in the 1870s, some landlords still refused to rent apartments to physicians or lawyers). The match seems to have been Jeanne’s father’s idea; as Bloch-Dano suggests, assimilation must have seemed desirable in 1870, as the Second Empire came crashing down during the Franco-Prussian War. The wedding took place the day after the French defeat at Sedan. Marcel was born ten months later, on 10 July 1871.

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