Saul’s Way

Proustian Uncertainties: On Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time by saul friedlÄnder. new york: other press. 176 pages. $25.

The cover of Proustian Uncertainties: On Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time

ON THE FACE OF IT, Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time would seem to be an unlikely subject for the immensely distinguished historian and memoirist Saul Friedländer. Proust’s monumental work is, after all, a work of radical subjectivity, so much so that Edmund Wilson associated it with Einstein’s new theory of relativity, which he developed in the same years that Proust was beginning to write his novel. Historians, by trade, unearth and are beholden to objective facts, whatever interpretation they later apply to those facts.

On the face of it I am an unlikely reviewer for any book whatsoever on Marcel Proust. I’m more of a Flaubert man myself, and my Proustian credentials are, to be over-kind to myself, quite shaky. What I really am is a Friedländer man, by virtue of having read his 1979 memoir When Memory Comes more than four decades ago. I have never forgotten the quietly shattering effect this story had on me, with its eloquent account of the dispossession, during Nazi occupation, of Friedländer’s highly assimilated Czech Jewish family, the safe haven his parents found for him in a severe French Catholic boarding school, and their eventual apprehension at the Swiss border and death in Auschwitz. I have just reread it for the first time and it remains the masterpiece I first took it to be. There are no doubt dozens of Holocaust memoirs whose raw material is grimmer and more wrenching, but few of them can touch the heart as deeply as this artfully understated work.

I believe the key to the existence and the subtext of Proustian Uncertainties can be found in the experiences related in When Memory Comes. The connection arrives in the second sentence of the latter book’s epigraph, by Gustav Meyrink: “Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing.” A more succinct statement of the organizing principle of In Search of Lost Time can hardly be imagined. The resonances are many. Saul’s father is, like Proust’s narrator’s, a remote figure. Both the actual Proust and Marcel were mother-dependent to an exceptionally neurotic degree. When Friedländer describes his family’s uneasy two-year sojourn in Vichy France, he recalls: “The long childhood illnesses I had were happy times for me. . . . My mother was obliged to stay with me longer than on ordinary days.” When I read these sentences I was immediately reminded of the famous scene in Swann’s Way in which the needy young narrator schemes to lure his mother upstairs from a dinner party to receive his customary good-night kiss and is unexpectedly granted some extended mom time. Friedländer asserts about his obsessive return to In Search of Lost Time that “some themes in the novel were close to my own ruminations over the decades, mainly about identity.” As Proustian Uncertainties progresses, readers of his earlier book will understand exactly what he means.

Marcel Proust, 1887.
Marcel Proust, 1887. Paul Nadar; Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikicommons

Friedländer’s rereadings of Search seem not to have been precisely friendly. Now that the ascent of critical theory has largely stripped literature of its cultural primacy and its claim to timeless transcendent knowledge, a genre of books has arisen that repurposes classic works as vehicles for personal growth. Proust can change your life, Homer can help you overcome trauma, Montaigne can equip you to face adversity and your eventual death, Dante is just plain good for you. Proustian Uncertainties is refreshingly different from those hortatory works. In contrast, Friedländer reads In Search of Lost Time very much against the grain, alert not only to the pleasures of its prose and its psychological acuities and metaphysical masteries, but even more so to its many contradictions and moral ambiguities. Not the least of these ambiguities are snobbery, a tortured relation to queerness, and the unsettling gusto of its portrayal of the cruelties of fin-de-siècle French society. Recall the infamously heartless scene where Charles Swann informs the Duchesse de Guermantes of his fatal illness, only for her to rush past the news in her haste to procure the proper red shoes to match her dress and not be late to a socially lofty dinner party. As many commentators have noted, In Search of Lost Time, for all its brilliance, is a gloomy and often sadistic book.

THE JEWISH QUESTION LOOMS LARGE in Friedländer’s investigations, as it must. In When Memory Comes he recalls that as a result of the austere and “monolithic” religious atmosphere of his seminary school, “I had passed over to Catholicism, body and soul.” To his lasting shame he adjusted with ease to a closed society scornful of Jews, and to his own complicity in spinning tales of a Jewish usurer himself. Friedländer is thus uniquely equipped to tease out the highly equivocal attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in In Search of Lost Time. Proust, while Catholic, was of course half-Jewish on his mother’s side, but the narrator of his novel presents simply as a pious Catholic. As Friedländer notes, Marcel is prone to repeat anti-Semitic remarks and makes often unflattering racial generalizations. The annoyingly brilliant schoolboy Albert Bloch comes in for particular scorn and is later referred to by Albertine, Marcel’s mistress, as a “Yid,” and even though Charles Swann is perhaps the novel’s most sympathetic character, his Jewish nose is ostentatiously described and its prominence noted in an atmosphere of anti-Dreyfus hostility. Finally Friedländer notes with clear anger Search’s blunt description (twice) of the social-climbing Bloch as a “hyena,” suggesting that Proust may have intended such a noxious characterization as a shield against the raging anti-Semitism that had seized France in the Dreyfus years, as well as an expression of the author’s Jewish self-hatred. The whole matter is clearly personal.

Friedländer, it must be said, is not a natural literary critic. His praise for the excellences of In Search of Lost Time are dutifully delivered but feel rote and under-felt in comparison to his reservations. Many of his sentences in Proustian Uncertainties are ungainly, in contrast with the elegant directness of When Memory Comes (first written in French and beautifully translated by Helen R. Lane). The historian in him is at the wheel, and Friedländer seems bothered by the many disjunctures between the actual life of the actual Marcel Proust and the account given by the fictional Marcel, and by the inconsistencies and careless illogicalities within the novel itself. He pickily interrogates the disconnect between Proust’s assertions about the unconscious workings of involuntary memory and the conscious variety required for the precision of the novel’s social tapestry, only to admit in the end that the assertions are, quite simply, literary devices. There is an almost forensic and prosecutorial tone to his consideration of such matters as Proust’s equally equivocal and, in the case of the brutal late description of the libertine Baron de Charlus, near-hostile attitude toward homosexuality. (Search may be a staple of gay bookstores, but it is hardly a text for gay liberation.) Most of Friedländer’s complaints—looseness of detail, inconsistent characterization, haphazard narrative construction—were anticipated almost a century ago by Wilson in his still canonical chapter on Proust in Axel’s Castle. But Wilson concludes that “the point of view of ordinary fiction” is irrelevant in this case and that the book’s true organizing principle is “the harmony, development and logic of the unconscious.” To him such “Proustian uncertainties” are part of a fully conscious and far broader literary strategy, and of a piece with the Symbolist movement in then-modern literature.

It is finally quite clear that this author has a lover’s quarrel with Proust and his masterpiece, and that the relationship has almost descended in his last rereadings into the kind of bickering to be observed in certain long-tethered couples. But displeasure and disapproval can be stronger signs of love than swoony approbation, and Proust’s novel not only can survive such astringent examination, it relieves the reader of the often annoying burden of prescribed admiration that is expected in the reading of a classic. In his book’s final pages Friedländer asks himself the obvious question of why In Search of Lost Time has such a powerful hold on him. After a bit of thought he traces it to the immense pain of the memory of his last meeting with his parents at the age of ten, hiding in a hospital room in Montluçon in 1942. “This is it,” he concludes. There is nothing Proustian about this memory—no pealing bells from the steeples of Combray, no bit of madeleine dissolving in tea. It is direct, blunt, unambiguously tragic, but it has served to anneal him permanently to a labyrinthine novel. Art works upon us in mysterious and often inexplicable ways. That is how we know it is art. That is its one certainty.

Gerald Howard is a retired book editor.