Book Review

Proustian Uncertainties by Saul Friedländer

another excellent book about marcel marcel marcel

Saul Friedländer was born in the 1930s and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Holocaust. He was born in Prague, fled with his parents to Paris, was taken into a seminary and converted to Catholicism while his parents were captured and murdered in Auschwitz by the corrupt, racist, evil Nazi regime.

Friedländer spent time learning to be a priest, before rediscovering his Jewish roots and relocating to Israel. Then, with a gift (a flair? an aptitude?) for languages (perhaps born from necessity as a child refugee?), he spent his adult life as an international educator, professor, historian and memoirist. This book – Proustian Uncertainties: On Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time (Other Press, 2020) – isn’t a reissue of something Friedländer wrote decades ago (unless it is but this is intentionally hidden), it is instead a new book (well, long essay) written by this almost 90 year old intellectual: a book about reading Proust, about rereading Proust and about the immense joys that can be sparked by doing so.

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There is a focus on the novel’s treatment of Jewishness and anti-semitism, especially in relation to Proust’s own part-Jewish heritage.

There is a repeated exploration of a repeated metaphor found in the novel, hundreds if not thousands of pages apart: twice the Narrator (who – at least in the translation I read – was named as Marcel, something Friedländer doesn’t acknowledge (though maybe it’s even something I misread, long ago confusing a footnote for text, who knows?) refers to his Jewish friend Bloch as “a hyena”.

Hyenas are traditionally depicted as scavengers, as cowards, as cackling, sinister, unloved and suspicious: the litany of metaphorical slights often associated with hyenas is forcefully argued by Friedländer as aggressive antisemitism, a reading which is hard to argue against. Proust – and his Narrator – fall thusly into another antisemitic trope, that of the “self hating Jew“.

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Jewishness, antisemitism, and prejudice more generally form a huge portion of À la recherche du temps perdu‘s thematic centre – for example the in-depth discussion of the Dreyfus Affair (a working knowledge of which is a sure sign of a true reader of Proust (or a big interest in late nineteenth century French history)), the entirety of Sodom and Gomorrah, the obsession with the – even at the time – theoretically meaningless aristocratic titles and class signifiers – and it is certainly an element of the novel that deserves this level of interest and exploration from someone who is a leading world expert in antisemitism and its historical and sociological repercussions.

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There’s also a lot about Proust’s depiction of queer relationships (comparing it with the treatment of the other sexual taboo in the novel – fucking inter-class), but Friedländer doesn’t offer the same level of personal digression when discussing this as he does when recounting the novel’s equally virulent – but also inconsistent – antisemitism.

Proust was part Jewish and very much gay – the narrator’s preoccupations with these identity markers mirror his own. Other than Proust’s use of the hyena metaphor, the other image Friedländer repeatedly refers to is a rumour traced to André Gide (a contemporaneous writer, peer and homosexual), stating that Proust used to watch two starving rats tearing each other to death as a way to bring about faster orgasm when fucking.

Gide – as we are more than once told – “had no reason to make this up” – but it also hardly has the ring of truth. Where would the starving rats come from? Would they always be to hand? Were they ordered in especially? Was this a pretty common thing in the clubs and brothels of queer fin de siècle Paris?

I can believe that, one time, while fucking someone and being bored and distracted and in a run-down location, Proust might have locked eyes with two moribund, aggy, rats (I know I’ve had similar experiences), but the idea that he regularly and intentionally did this during the course of his life just doesn’t fly.

All in, though, the book is a pleasure to read, as most secondary texts about A la recherche du temps perdu turn out to be.

That marvellous novel, which is read by most people in fits and bursts, tends to work Madeleine-like as a memory prompt: I remember where I was, who I was, what I was, when I first read the various parts of Proust’s masterpiece. I remember how I felt and how it made me feel – I remember how I laughed and how I wept and as a year (or two years? I don’t know) has passed since I finally got to the end of Time Regained I feel myself increasingly tempted to circle back to the beginning and spend another decade dipping in and out of that powerful, memorialising, prose.

Books on Proust: always a pleasure.

Written 12th August

Order Proustian Uncertainties direct from Other Press

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