Madame Proust: A Biography
By Evelyne Bloch-Dano Translated by Alice Kaplan(University of Chicago Press 310pp £16)
Not everyone can get through Proust. Some can't see what all the fuss is about. Others simply get bogged down in the later volumes. There are certainly tedious passages for all but the most completely devoted in La Prisonnière and Albertine disparue. One may even believe that it would have been a yet greater novel, and certainly a more popular one, if the 1914-18 war hadn't disrupted its publication, enabling Proust to add and elaborate, elaborate and analyse, and so on. That's by the bye. There must, however, be many who, though unable to finish the novel, have found much to delight them in the early volumes, those which draw so heavily from the well of Proust's childhood and adolescent memories. It is one of the many merits of this admirable biography of Proust's mother that it invites one to return to the novel with perhaps a fuller understanding of Proust's heredity, hinterland and upbringing.
It's also a very interesting social history. Madame Proust was born Jeanne Weil, Jewish on both sides of her family. (One of the genealogical tables shows that Marcel Proust and Karl Marx were distant cousins, though their common ancestor was six or seven generations back.) Evelyne Bloch-Dano (who may, I suspect, be herself a distant connection of Proust, one of whose ancestors was called Rachel Bloch) gives a thorough and fascinating account of how Jeanne Proust's family assimilated in little more than a couple of generations, so that, by the time of her birth in 1849, they were French men and women who happened to be of the Jewish faith, rather than Jews living in France. If one considers that Jews had not been entitled to full citizenship till 1791, the speed of their assimilation is remarkable. In the case of her family, it helped that they were highly able, successful and prosperous.
The Weils had left Alsace at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Jeanne's father was a stockbroker, a wealthy man. Her brother was a lawyer.
If Jeanne had been a boy, she would have earned a degree. She knew Latin and spoke fluent English and German. Like her mother she was an excellent pianist. She shared her passion for books with her parents and her brother. At the Weils' there was always discussion and debate. And that alone distinguished them from traditional bourgeois families, in which girls grew up like force-fed geese bred only for marriage.
Her own marriage to Adrien Proust marked another step in the process of assimilation. He was thoroughly French, from a Catholic family, the son of a provincial grocer. He was also brilliant, already a successful physician in his early thirties, and making a name for himself in the field of epidemiology and public hygiene.
For Jeanne's father, Adrien Proust's 'republican, secular values and his profession were guarantees for the future, in case of a change of regime ... Monsieur Weil was offering his daughter a passport to society.' It was a marriage of convenience, which became one of love. The wedding took place on the day the French army was annihilated by the Prussians at Sedan, effectively the end of the Second Empire. Their first child, Marcel, was born in Auteuil a few days after the suppression of the Commune.
Naturally the relationship between mother and son is at the heart of this book because it's unlikely that we would know anything of Jeanne Proust but for Marcel. Sensibly, Bloch-Dano draws at least as much from Jean Santeuil, the novel which Proust abandoned and which wasn't published till long after his death, as from A la recherche. I say 'sensibly' because it is much more directly autobiographical.
Their relationship was intense; everyone knows that. What is made evident here is its complicated nature. To put it briefly: Marcel wanted simultaneously to be independent and to remain the little boy who was the centre of his mother's world (significantly, the narrator of A la recherche is an only child, brother Robert having been excised, though in life the brothers were close). Madame Proust also wanted Marcel to remain a little boy and to be independent of her. But though each wanted the same things they wanted them at different times. When she and Adrien Proust tried to force independence on him, the little child resisted and sought to climb back into the maternal ark. When he struck out independently, Jeanne seized hold of the reins and drew him back. So their love was rarely smooth; both experienced resentment. They quarrelled fiercely, so that the reconciliation might be all the sweeter. It was the most intense love-affair of Proust's life.
Bloch-Dano is in no doubt that Jeanne recognised that Marcel was homosexual. But it was the one thing they could not talk about. Silence deepened his guilt and fed his resentment. Her death desolated him and yet liberated him to yield to the impulses he cherished and despised.
She helped him in his work, doing much of the first draft of the translation of Ruskin's Bible of Amiens for him (her grasp of English was much better than his). 'Jeanne realized that the qualities her son lacked most were will power and perseverance. She persisted in helping him acquire them ... Her confidence, her vigilance, her intelligence, her demands, and her love were the crucibles forging the iron will that would one day enable Marcel to go the distance. She would never see her efforts crowned.' One wonders if her death wasn't necessary to enable him at last to embark on the novel. It was to become what she had been: his ark.
This fascinating book is full of interesting social and cultural observation, of information about French Jewish life, the position of Jews in society and, of course, the Dreyfus case. But it is essentially a study of one of the most remarkable and fruitful of mother-son relationships. As such it is a book that every Proustian will want to read. The better you know A la recherche, the more richness you will find here. The translation by Alice Kaplan, herself the author of a very good study of Robert Brasillach, executed in 1945 for collaboration with the Nazis, is also admirable.