A Jewish Outsider in Paris.

AuthorSiegel, Robert

I have been thinking about Marcel Proust and the Jews. Several weeks ago, in the doldrums of the second winter of my retirement, the memory of a friend's question about my plans to keep myself occupied, a question perhaps posed half-facetiously considering the cliche it contained--did I have a plan, such as reading Proust?--came to mind and suddenly struck me as the kind of plan for which winters in retirement are most suitable, and it inspired me to plot my mental escape from that dark and unusually damp season into Belle Epoque France (roughly the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914), 4,000-plus pages of it, rendered in Marcel Proust's prose, which very often consists of sentences packed with similes and digressions within digressions, sentences typically running longer than even this one. So here I am, roughly midway through the seven-volume novel whose title is now translated as In Search of Lost Time (as of this writing I am in volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah), having prolonged the experience by reading books about Proust while advancing through his magnum opus.

The narrator of Lost Time is a writer, also named Marcel, whose author makes some critical distinctions between his fictional protagonist and himself. Although Proust was baptized, his mother was Jewish, born into the Weil family of bankers; the Marcel of the novels has no Jewish parent. Proust was gay (to use his preferred word, he was "an invert"); Marcel seems to be one of the few major characters in the novel who is not. Like the real-life Proust, Marcel the fictional adolescent and young adult is a social climber of Himalayan ambition. Having wormed his way into the salons, dinners and galas of the titled aristocracy of Paris, he makes the disappointing observation that, for all their beauty and pedigree, they are a dim lot and narrow-minded to boot.

Which brings us to the Jews. In the village where young Marcel's family spent summer vacations, they would walk in either of two directions, one toward the castle of the noble Guennantes family, the other past the country home of a family friend named Charles Swann. (Swann's Way is the title of the novel's first volume; The Guermantes Way is the third.) The Guermantes way was the way of the ancient, crumbling but still glamorous social order of the aristocracy, the France of knights-in-armor and bad days at the guillotine. Swann's way was the way of recently...

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