Was Marcel Proust an Anti-Semite?

Proust’s mother was Jewish, which makes him Jewish in the eyes of Jews, but he was raised in the Catholic church of his father. He moved comfortably in both worlds, having good relations with the maternal side of the family as well as with the overwhelmingly Catholic high society in which he moved. One index of moral scorn he felt for a character in the novel was the identification of that person as an anti-Semite. His most sympathetic character, Swann, was Jewish. And Proust was a militant Dreyfusard who lead a petition campaign for a retrial. With these credentials it would appear foolish to accuse him of anti-Semitism. Yet there is another side to Proust.

Proust’s sense of justice is outraged whenever discrimination is leveled at a Jew who is in every sense a member of French society, culturally, artistically, linguistically. Swann, until the Dreyfus affair, is accepted in Parisian society because he is truly a member of that society. At the hysterical height of the affair, Swann is isolated by  his former friends, simply because he is a Jew and that is the kind of anti-Semitism that enraged Proust.

[Mme de Guermantes was] dreading the prospect of having to shake hands with Swann in these anti-semitic surroundings. With regard to this, her mind was soon set at rest, for she learned that the Prince had refused to have Swann in the house and had had “a sort of an altercation” with him. There was no risk of her having to converse in public with “poor Charles,” whom she preferred to cherish in private. (IV,98)

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that  they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally.  It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew.” (IV,107-108)

All these expressions Mme Bontemps had imparted to her at the same time as a hatred of the Jews and a respect for black because it is always suitable and becoming… (III,485-487)

But, if a Jew is not fully assimilated in French society, Proust is vicious in the language he uses to describe him. Bloch is such a person. He is very slow to learn how to move gracefully in society. He knocks over vases, is rude, arrives muddy and late to dinner, with no apology. Here is Proust on Bloch and his family.

They repelled–the Jews among them principally, the unassimilated Jews, that is to say, for with the other kind we are not concerned–those who could not endure any oddity or eccentricity of appearance (as Bloch repelled Albertine). (III,559)

… a Jew, making his entry as though he were emerging from the desert, his body crouching like a hyena’s, his neck thrust forward, offering profound “salaams,” completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental. (III,253)

Personally, I was not particularly anxious that Bloch should come to the hotel. He was at Balbec, not by himself, unfortunately, but with his sisters, and they in turn had innumerable relatives and friends staying there. Now this Jewish colony was more picturesque than pleasing….they formed a solid troop, homogenous within itself, and utterly dissimilar to the people who watched them go by and found them there again every year without ever exchanging a word or a greeting…(II,434)

However, if the failing of his son, that is to say the failing which his son believed to be invisible to other people, was coarseness, the father’s was avarice. And so it was in a decanter that we were served, under the name of champagne, with a light sparkling wine, while under that of orchestra stalls he had taken three in the pit, which cost half as much, miraculously persuaded by the divine intervention of his failing that neither at table nor in the theatre (where the boxes were all empty) would the difference be noticed. (II,487)

And thanks to the way in which he brushed his hair, to the suppression of his moustache, to the elegance of his whole figure–thanks, that is to say, to his determination–his Jewish nose was now scarcely more visible than is the deformity of a hunchbacked woman who skilfully arranges her appearance. (VI,384)

It struck me that if in the light of Mme de Villeparisis’s drawing-room I had taken some photographs of Bloch, they would have given an image of Israel identical  with those we find in spirit photographs–so disturbing because it does not appear to emanate from humanity, so deceptive because it none the less resembles humanity all too closely. (III,255)

Even Swann, when he is portrayed as a Jew, gets the Jewish caricature.

Whether because of the absence of those cheeks, no longer there to modify it, or because of arteriosclerosis, which is also a form of intoxication, had reddened it as would drunkenness, or deformed it as would morphine, Swann’s punchinello nose, absorbed for long years into an agreeable face, seemed now enormous, tumid, crimson, the nose of an old Hebrew rather than of a dilettante Valois.  (IV,121)

This is the language of the anti-Semite; there is no other term for it. He has a contempt for “the unassimilated Jews.” Here is a passage from Céleste Albaret’s memoir.

He was scathing enough about some kinds of Jew, though never out of racial or religious prejudice. “Have you ever been to the Marais,” he said, “–the Jewish commercial district?” “No, monsieur.” “You haven’t missed anything, Celeste. The ugliness and meanness! On the other hand, it would have been an interesting experience for you. Fortunately they are not all like that–far from it. You don’t have to be a Jew to have those faults, or many others. But those merchants! It is not surprising Christ drove them from the Temple!” (206)

Is Proust an anti-Semite? By our current standards, his unflattering charicature of Jews is not acceptable. Allowing for a different sensibility a hundred years ago, that had no knowledge of just how evil anti-Semitism could become, I have to refrain from a too harsh judgement.



4 Responses to “Was Marcel Proust an Anti-Semite?”

  1. cantueso Says:


    No, no, I think you make too much of some of his descriptions, and I don’t think he was much of a Catholic at all.
    I don’t understand what you mean by Swann being “sympathetic” unless you mix it up with simpathique= likable.

    I thought that the most likable individuals are Aunt Leonie, Charlus and Bloch. Or rather, they are the most memorable. They are so awfully memorable that I cannot spend a year or so without looking any of them up. I imagine that Proust himself was fussy and a recluse like Leonie and in his youth clumsy like Bloch and later arrogant like Charlus and vain like the Duchess of Guermantes, plus knowledgeable like Swann.

    The Jews themselves make fun of the Jews. They just won’t let other people do the same. And because Israel is so tiny and its frontiers so delicate, there is politically more at stake for all Jews and they often fight each other in many grim ways. I don’t think that a Jew who could read Proust in the original French would mind his descriptions at all.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I do agree that the three characters you mention are more colorfully drawn and more memorable than Swann. And I do find Swann *simpathique. *

      But I do not see Proust as a Jew having a little fun entre-nous. There is not a trace of humor or irony in these descriptions of Jews. I see this as more of a class distinction: the urbane, assimilated Jew embarrased by fellow Jews who are gauche. In this sense, his demeaning descriptions of Jews is a kind of defensive stance acquired in the extreme anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair.

  2. Julia M. Greve Says:

    Proust’s apparently anti-seemitic dcriptions/remarks were not uncommon among assimilated jews throghout Europe (in particular post-WW I Germany/see German literature of the 1920s) as well as the US. I still heard similar references as those of Proust to “Eastern jews” in post-Holocaust Israel and from jewish emmigrants elsewhere. It had much to do with education and class differences and last not least language as many jews in Paris as well as Berlin emmigrated from either from Alsace/Lothringen to France (incorperated into the German empire from 1871-1918) or from Russia. Thousands of Alsacians left their homes and moved to France after 1871 and if jewish or christian they were not very welcomed by the French.

    Jews who read Prost’s remarks before 1933 possibly perceived them diffrently than post-WW II readers.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Thanks for providing context to this issue. I too have heard class-based and secular vs observant disparaging remarks made by Jews to other Jews. One Jewish businessman I knew objected to an employee, who was Hasidic, as being “dirty.” Nonetheless, I believe Proust should be held to a higher standard, given his sensitivity to the sordidness of anti-Semitism, which he displays numerous times in the novel.

      In addition to the class distinctions you mention, I would conjecture that the character of Bloch is a projection of his own feelings of awkwardness and alienation as he, a Jew, began to move up in Parisian society.

      No doubt the terms “anti-Semitic” or “self-hating Jew” are not nuanced enough to apply to Proust the person. But his language remains and those terms are appropriate to describe it.

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