Home > 20th Century, French Literature, Literary Escapades, Proust, Marcel > Literary escapade: Marcel Proust on his mother’s side – an exhibition

Literary escapade: Marcel Proust on his mother’s side – an exhibition

After the exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet (see my billets here and here), my celebration of the centenary of Proust’s death continues with another Parisian exhibition. Indeed, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme set in the Marais quarter currently hosts an exhibition about Proust on his mother’s side.

Proust’s great grandfather, Baruch Weil (1780-1828) directed a porcelain manufactory in Fontainebleau and was the official circumciser of the synagogue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth in Paris. Nahé, one of his sons, married Adèle Berncastel (1824-1890) they had a daughter, Jeanne.

Jeanne Weil married Adrien Proust, a doctor from Eure-et-Loir who was probably a freemasonry acquaintance of her father.

Combray is on Adrien’s side. Adrien and Jeanne had a civil marriage and decided that their children would be educated as catholic. Nevertheless, Marcel and Robert went to the Lycée Concordet, a Républican high school and not a Catholic school.

So, Adèle Weil is Proust’s grandmother, the one who reads Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon in In Search of Lost Time. Jeanne is Proust’s mother. Adèle and Jeanne had a solid education and studied more than most girls of their time who were brought up for marriage and nothing else. (See Balzac and Flaubert) Here are photographs of these two important ladies who raised Marcel into the writer he became.

Marcel Proust was close to the Weil family. His great-uncle Louis lived in Auteuil where Proust used to live when he was a child. The great-uncle Louis is in In Search of Lost Time under Oncle Adolphe. He was rich and had no children: he left his money to his nephew Georges and his niece Jeanne and Marcel inherited part of his fortune after his mother died.

Jeanne Weil was very important in her son’s life. They had a close relationship. It came from the circumstances of his birth (right during the Paris Commune and his poor health. (Marcel almost died of an athma attack when he was ten) Beside her traditional role as a mother, she was the one interested in arts. She traveled with him, helped him translate Ruskin as her English was better than his. Adèle, Jeanne and Marcel were the art lovers while Robert was more into science and sports and closer to his father.

The exhibition aimed at pinpointing the importance of his Jewish roots in Proust’s life and literature. Sometimes I thought the connections were obvious and interesting to explore and sometimes I thought it was a bit farfetched. Let’s start with those.

The exhibition makes a comparison between Proust’s manuscripts and their “paperoles”, additions to the text and transcripts of the Talmud with their peripheral commentaries surrounding the text. See for yourself.

Sure, his “paperoles” and additions to the text exist but any other writer could have done the same, no?

His Jewish family lodgings in Auteuil or in Paris became places in his novel. His stays in Normandy from 1880 to 1914 among the Jewish intelligentsia are in the center of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. This is where we hear about the Narrator’s Jewish friend Bloch. It was the opportunity to see a few paintings as illustrations of the atmosphere of the time. I always enjoy impressionist paintings and I love that they give us glimpses of life at the end of the 19th century.

There is also a special display about Esther, Jewish the heroin of The Book of Esther. Jeanne Proust admired this heroin a lot and Sarah Bernhardt (La Berma) performed in the play Esther by Racine. It was also mentioned that Raynaldo Hahn, Proust’s friend and ex-lover accompanied her at the piano.

Then the passage about Charlus’s secret. He’s one of the homosexual characters of In Search of Lost Time. The link between homosexuality and the Jewish community is that both communities had to lay low. It sounds more an excuse to include the major theme of homosexuality in the exhibition than anything else.

I thought that the real themes about Jews in In Search of Lost Time are the Dreyfus Affair and how Proust paints Jewish characters. The Dreyfus Affair is a key topic in Proust’s work. He was on the Dreyfusard side, right from the beginning. He supported Zola and signed a protest. And yet he remained friend with the despicable Léon Daudet, a notorious anti-Semitic writer. (I’m glad that Proust never got to see how his friend turned out in the 1930s until his death)

His work depicts with accuracy the impact of this affair on the social order. He shows how families were torn apart. With light touches here and there, he makes the reader understand how antisemitic the French society was and I can truly say that reading Proust made me understand how Vichy happened. There were antisemitic roots that Vichy watered, grew and exploited.

The two main Jewish characters in Proust’s masterpiece are Charles Swann and Bloch. Swann represents the elegant and cultivated Jew while Bloch embodies the opposite. Proust was sometimes criticized because his Jewish characters seem caricatural while they are only the mirror of the society’s prejudices and not reflecting the author’s opinion.

The exhibition also points out that the Zionist movement rapidly stressed Proust’s Jewishness. It happened right after his death, in the 1920s. His work was quoted in several reviews and his recognition as a Jewish and universal artist was early. This is something I wasn’t aware of.

All in all, it was informative and interesting to think about Proust’s work through his Jewish background. It was the opportunity to visit this museum and see its permanent collections about Jewish history and culture.

  1. July 24, 2022 at 8:48 pm

    What a wonderful exhibition – thank you for sharing it with us, Emma!

    Like

    • July 24, 2022 at 9:48 pm

      Thanks Karen! I’m glad you liked my billet. More Proust coming up with Time Regained.

      Like

  2. July 25, 2022 at 1:47 am

    Fascinating stuff! I followed the link to Daudet, he was a prolific writer!

    Like

  3. July 25, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    I didn’t know about the Daudet link or the degree of anti-semitism in 19th century France. Probably quite a strong tendency across all of Europe at the time…

    Like

    • July 26, 2022 at 8:38 pm

      Yes, I think it wasn’t only in France. Proust depicts the atmosphere and the reader guesses the rest.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. July 25, 2022 at 6:47 pm

    Such a fascinating post Emma – thank you!

    Like

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