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.

Robert, the brother famously absent from almost everything Proust wrote, was born when Marcel was not quite two. What is striking in this as in other accounts of the Proust household is the extent to which the boys seemed to belong to two entirely separate families. Despite their physical similarity as children, Marcel is Maman’s little neurasthenic, whereas Robert quickly becomes Papa’s robust, heterosexual go-getter and eventually comes to resemble him physically and to choose the same career.

For a full dose of Proustian mother-obsession, the place to go is Jean Santeuil, a chaotic proto-novel written in the mid-1890s. Proust abandoned it to translate Ruskin, although most of the work was done by his mother, who, unlike him, knew English. Jeanne provided literal renditions of Ruskin’s prose, which Marcel then embroidered. She threw herself into this task, apparently delighted by both the work itself and the hope that her indolent son might actually turn his literary ambitions into a career. Eventually, to her disappointment, he abandoned the project (though he did publish two volumes in translation, including an important preface). Proust’s reputation for dilettantism – a reputation that apparently prevented André Gide from even bothering to open the package containing the manuscript of Du côté de chez Swann in 1912 – seems to have been warranted during this period, that is to say while his mother was still alive.

Jean Santeuil, which was first published in the 1950s, provides the closest thing we have to an accurate account of Proust’s early years. This is, no doubt, why it failed as a work of fiction. It is fascinating in large part because it includes things A la recherche leaves out. It contains, for example, a great deal about school, including a brief but remarkable scene in which Jean, who predictably tends to be mocked and despised for his sensitive ways and extravagant prose, is pursued by two hundred hooting boys, only to be rescued by a handsome schoolfellow’s opportune invitation into his carriage. (Other accounts suggest that Marcel spent his adolescent years being picked on, though less fantastically so, and unsuccessfully trying to seduce schoolmates with references to Socrates and Montaigne.) It is undoubtedly true that Proust was unable to begin A la recherche until freed by the death of his parents – his father died in 1903, his mother in 1905 – and yet Jean Santeuil is in some ways the gayer book, foregrounding the hero’s passionate romance with a schoolfriend.

The schoolboy infatuation meets with great disapproval from Jean’s parents, but no more so than an earlier episode in which they insist that he stop seeing a girl with whom he has become obsessed. The Gilberte episode in Du côté de chez Swann is an amalgam of the two, but without the parental interdiction. The parents in A la recherche disapprove of their son’s infatuation, but they do not, as their earlier avatars do, require him to stop seeing Gilberte for the very reason that he feels he cannot live without her. It is this that makes Jean Santeuil read at times like a Gallic Portnoy’s Complaint: the mother insists that truly loving one’s parents requires more than merely taking pleasure in kissing them or feeling pain at their absence (this much is natural to the highly-strung, the nerveux); it requires one to go against one’s inclinations and renounce one’s desire for others, whether girls or boys. Such attachments can lead only to disappointment and harm; Nero himself, she continues, may have been nerveux, but that did not make him any less evil. Why Nero? Because, as any French schoolboy knows from Racine’s Britannicus, Nero had his own mother killed.

Two years after his mother’s death, Proust wrote an article extolling the filial piety of an acquaintance, Henri Blarenberghe, who had shot and killed his mother and then himself. In A la recherche the narrator notes that the subject of maternal profanation demands a chapter to itself. It is never given one, but the topic resurfaces frequently throughout Proust’s writings. Several of his early stories feature mothers who are mysteriously killed merely by witnessing their adult child’s (hetero)sexual desire. The most telling expression of Proustian matrocentrism, though, is a scene in Jean Santeuil in which, following a traumatic confrontation with his parents over his fecklessness, Jean’s anger disappears after he comes across an old coat of his mother’s. (He is a young man when this takes place, but is described as ‘a little boy of 20’.) Filled with tender emotion brought on by the realisation that one day his mother will die, he puts on the satin and ermine-lined garment and, still wearing it, fervently apologises to his disconcerted parents. In a note appended to this scene Proust reminds himself to write a conclusion in which Jean alternately imagines a life after his parents’ death in which he will be able to live freely with his schoolfriend, Henri, and realises that he cannot live without them and will kill himself when they are gone.

The passage concludes with Mme Santeuil forgiving Jean for breaking a Venetian glass, and uses an arresting image taken from a letter written by Mme Proust, in which she proposes that the shattered glass become a covenant, a meaning it holds in the temple ceremony – the Jewish wedding ritual in which the groom steps on a glass. The Santeuil family isn’t supposed to be Jewish. Mme Santeuil is at one point seen trying to overcome her anti-semitic upbringing in order to appreciate the qualities of a saintly Jewish acquaintance. Even the Dreyfus Affair is dejewified in Jean Santeuil, fictionalised as the Daltozzi Affair (though Dreyfus keeps popping up under his own name). In A la recherche Dreyfus is always Dreyfus, but it is no longer the protagonist who attends the trial, but Bloch, the novel’s most flagrantly Jewish Jew.

Unlike Swann, whose family has been converted for generations, Bloch changes his name and tries to pass himself off as an aristocrat. But the name he picks, Jacques du Rozier, is a dead giveaway, with its echo of the rue des Rosiers, the main drag in the Jewish ghetto in Paris. Bloch’s story (based in part on that of the playwright Francis de Croisset, né Frantz Wiener) recalls the old joke about Katzman, who, seeking to assimilate, translates his name: producing Chatlhomme, pronounced ‘Shalom’. Variations on this theme abound in Proust’s work, one of the most insistent lessons of which is that we give ourselves away most fully when we try to conceal things.

No subjects are as fraught in A la recherche as Jewishness and homosexuality; both are inextricably bound up with the mother, and therefore with the theme of maternal profanation. At a few points these subjects all come together, as when the Baron de Charlus, the novel’s great deranged sodomite, fantasises about asking Bloch to beat up his ‘old camel of a mother’. The narrator is horrified, all the more so since he feels obliged to note that the project is impossible because Mme Bloch is dead. Charlus and Bloch, the crazed aristocratic invert and the pretentious Jewish arriviste, are among other things versions of the author.

Madame Proust is among a growing number of biographies of writers’ female relations. Like Bloch-Dano’s previous biography of Emile Zola’s beleaguered wife, Madame Proust at once arises out of feminism and displays a peculiar relation to it, since the female subject is of interest chiefly in relation to the great man, and yet the demands of the genre require that she be depicted as interesting in her own right. And although Jeanne Weil Proust is interesting in her own right there are two problems with this highly readable biography. One is that the author takes liberties with history and fiction; this is a biography that ‘reads like a novel’, extrapolating from a variety of sources, including letters and Proust’s fiction, so that it is sometimes not clear what a scene is based on, or how much credence to give it. Were the potato dumplings made by Reichel Weyl, Jeanne’s great-grandmother, really as ‘light as snowflakes’? Is it true that ‘nowhere else’ did Jeanne ‘feel as foreign’ as in her in-laws’ house in Illiers, where a crucifix hung over her bed? In the 1950s, George Painter failed to interview the many witnesses still around, preferring instead to piece together a version of Proust’s life from his fiction, which he then used to explain the novel. Bloch-Dano does not go this far, but she sometimes tends in the same direction, as when she decides to call the narrator’s mother in A la recherche Jeanne, although Proust carefully left her nameless.

The second problem with this account is that, as one of the puffs on the dust jacket notes, Bloch-Dano ‘has written a biography of Madame Proust as Jeanne Proust would have’. This means that some aspects of the story are underplayed: Proust’s vexed relation to Jewishness, along with the hints of casual anti-semitism in the narrator’s family in A la Recherche, are dealt with purely as a routine expression of Jewish self-hatred. ‘This distancing, this critical glance cast upon one’s own kind,’ Bloch-Dano writes, ‘is a well-known phenomenon: the difficulty of seeing oneself reflected in the gaze of others.’ True enough, but it doesn’t really explain the baroque complications the phenomenon acquires in the context of this particular family.

Jeanne’s relation to Marcel’s homosexuality receives similar treatment. Bloch-Dano maintains that it was an open secret between them, which seems likely enough, but her eventual point appears to be that it was really not that big a deal, which any reader of Proust’s fiction knows cannot be true. Bloch-Dano depicts the family as a well-adjusted example of late 19th-century assimilation, which, again, may be accurate on some level, but isn’t what makes us want to read the biography of Jeanne Weil Proust.

Perhaps none of this is very important in the end, since Madame Proust seems to be meant not so much as a contribution to Proust studies as to cultural history, and as such it is valuable. A great asset of this version is the translation by Alice Kaplan, who curbs some of the author’s wilder flights of fancy, and also provides some references that were missing or incomplete in the original edition. Ruskin should have been so lucky.