In Search of Lost Time by Saul Friedlander – The Forward


In a new book, Saul Friedländer shows how an analytical approach that made him a Holocaust historian, can explain a gay writer of Jewish origin.

“Proustian uncertainties” concerns the French novelist Marcel Proust, whose ” In Search of Lost Time “ offers emotionally complex storytelling and memories related to sexuality and Judaism.

Surprisingly perhaps, this topic is a natural fit for Friedländer. His writings on the Holocaust include vivid narrative content from personal accounts by European Jews suffering under fascism.

In interviews, Friedländer has often pointed out that he feels most comfortable in the French language and culture, despite being born in Prague.

Like his briefs relates, his family moved to France in 1938. His parents, assimilated Jews who were then murdered at Auschwitz, chose not to have him circumcised; later, this allowed him to be hidden in a Catholic school near Vichy during the Nazi Occupation.

After the war, he studied in Paris, and French remains the language he speaks with the most comfort and pleasure, as evidenced by lectures and online interviews.

The pleasure principle in language is part of Friedländer’s Proustian project, as well as Proust’s fascination with the historical moment. Last January Friedländer, now 88, told the Jüdische Allgemeine, a weekly for the German Jewish community, which he chose Proust as subject “to find oneself in a world of beauty and not with these terrible subjects (schrecklichen Themen) that I have faced all my life.

Taking literature as an improvement in life, Friedländer wrote a previous study on Kafka, with whom he felt a close bond, given his family’s background in Prague.

Even more intimately, the mother-obsessed narrative of “In Search of Lost Time” struck a chord with Friedländer, after her attempts to cope with the tragic fate of her own parents. As Friedländer has it recount, a comeback to adulthood in a Parisian milk bar that sold strawberry milkshakes to himself and his mother decades before has failed to replicate the magical effect of Proust’s madeleine sponge cake, which resuscitated the childhood memories of the narrator.

Nevertheless, Friedländer, who published a book on the limits of psychohistory inspired by his own years as a patient in therapy described in his autobiography, has its own techniques for reviving and evaluating memory and history.

Friedländer admits that he is not a specialist of Proust, unlike classical biographers Jean-Yves Tadie and Guillaume Carter.

Instead, he relied on secondary sources in English to patiently and insightfully place the reader in the historical context of Proust’s story, to explain why Proust and his narrator use negative language about Jews and Jews. homosexuals.

Friedländer’s suggestions sometimes contain artful Yiddishkeit, as when he compares Proust to Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Proust’s narrator, says Friedländer, in an “involuntary role” is “like the golem who, in a famous Jewish legend, escaped from the rabbi who created him and begins to destroy the defenses the rabbi had erected against himself and against the enemy ”.

Of course, Proust was very aware of everything he did when he wrote fiction. Yet by considering the narrator in “In Search of Lost Time” the “voice of the unconscious of Proust”, Friedlander attempts to explain what he sees as unresolved contradictions in the novel and the life of Proust, which disturb him as a historian of the Holocaust. For any historian, ambiguities and self-contradictions are problematic uncertainties, whereas professional students of literature might simply view them as part of the art of fiction.

Then there is the moral dimension, in which Proust, preoccupied with the theme of cruelty, chose to remain friends with anti-Semites like the journalist Léon Daudet. Friedlander is of the opinion:

“I may be speaking from a post-war point of view, but there are certain facts that one cannot escape: Proust could not help admiring one of the main French anti-Jewish agitators of his time. Clearly, his feelings towards the Jews and his own Jewishness were utterly confused at best, despite his stance against injustice in the Dreyfus affair; and all of this despite being aware of his own Jewish heritage. Or was it because of it?

Friedländer suggests that Proust wanted his narrator to be more like him, a Jewish homosexual, but feared alienating readers. Proust’s scholars asserted that he believed, as he put it Andre Gide, that art in fiction requires never speaking in the first person singular: “You can say anything, as long as you never say ‘I’. “

Thus, Proust deliberately included Jewish mockery and homophobic language in his novel as conscious artistic choices, showing the society of his time.

As an example of other uncertainties, Friedländer asserts that Proust “did not hide his homosexuality”, but his narrator did. Yet recent biographers have argued that Proust’s narrator may be misleading about his alleged heterosexuality, but Proust himself was by no means out of the closet.

Proust spoke to close friends about his sexuality, but his status in society demanded that he not be too assertive a Jew during the difficult times of the Dreyfus affair who tore Parisian society apart, nor openly gay.

Indeed, Proust fought a duel in 1897 with a rival author, Jean Lorrain, who had publicly suggested that one of Proust’s male friends might be his lover.

Among the complex and oft-debated details of Proust’s private life, Friedländer repeatedly mentions Proust’s “unrequited” love for his driver Alfred Agostinelli, but today’s Proust specialists among them Kazuyoshi Yoshikawa, who translated Proust’s novel into Japanese, explains that Proust and Agostinelli may have had an intimate and reciprocal relationship after all.

As a historian of literature Elisabeth ladenson noted, Proust was not just a gay Jew, he was a gay Jewish snob. Arrogance, linked to his standing in the assemblies of Parisian high society, governed Proust’s behavior as much as other aspects of his inner self.

In some ways, Proust’s conscious decisions about what to include in his novel defy psychohistoric dissection. Proust himself showed no interest in reading Freud’s works as Friedländer insightfully notes.

In the end, Friedländer concludes that for him, Proust’s novel lacks tragic meaning, because it rarely evokes the death of characters; his narrator “does not arouse much sympathy, any more than the personality of Marcel Proust, from what we know about him … There is nothing on ultimate questions, on concerns of any transcendence. , at Proust. In other words, with Proust there is no place for sin and redemption as with Dostoyevsky, or with Tolstoy for that matter. The author was agnostic, but this should not be relevant to the immense scope of human types described. We miss the tragic dimension and we miss the metaphysical dimension or what could also be the affirmation of human freedom and assertiveness (or self-creation), as we find it less than two decades later in existentialism.

Correctly identifying a lack of presumptuous seriousness in Proust that would later be discernible in the writings of Camus and Sartre, Friedländer deliberately underestimates a key element of Proust in the original French, his wit bursting with laughter.

Yet even if Proust was someone Friedländer wouldn’t have wanted to share a madeleine or a strawberry milkshake with, readers can only rejoice that the powerful analytical eye of a great Jewish historian has turned. towards the immortal masterpiece of the novelist.


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