September 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

Madame Proust by Evelyne Bloch-Dano, translated by Alice Kaplan

The crux of the biography of Madame Jeanne Proust, Marcel Proust’s mother, may be best encapsulated by the following passage in Alice Kaplan’s translation:

[Jeanne Proust’s] faith in Marcel, 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. Imagine how proud she would have been to witness Marcel’s drive in finishing his great work! But would she have allowed him to sacrifice his life to it? Her presence was indispensable; perhaps her disappearance was equally so.

Meticulously researched, Madame Proust offers a socio-cultural portrait of French and Jewish culture and how each intersected in Proust’s lifetime. It not only explores Anti-Semitism, assimilation and naturalization of Jewish French Nationals and Dreyfus affair but also ably recreates the bourgeois milieu, familial and cultural context and the physical lay-out of the Paris in which Marcel Proust lived.  Marcel Proust was the product of an arranged marriage between an affluent Jewish mother and upwardly mobile Catholic father. 

Jeanne Proust was a formidable woman whose entire orbit circled her nuclear and extended family, but particularly Marcel -- severely asthmatic, fragile, petulant, dependant, loving and genius. To describe their relationship as co-dependent would vastly understate the nature or breadth of their interdependency and the mutual intellectual, emotional and spiritual nourishment they offered one another. Excerpts of the extensive and frequent correspondence between mother and son offer some insight into shared, refined sensibility and caustic (sometimes snobbish) wit.

Aptly, Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, opens with the narrator, anxious and unable to sleep, awaiting his mother’s goodnight kiss. Madame Proust’s literary alter ego -- re-imagined by Marcel -- only hints at Jeanne’s power and influence over her son. Both would alternately agonize, be burdened by and be misled as to one another’s ill health and grief. Each one was inextricably and lovingly tied to the other.

Marcel would not recover from the loss of his mother and would spend the next two years of his life, before joining her, crafting a novel that would reconfigure the literary landscape and catapult him to posthumous acclaim. Bloch-Dano’s biography offers a sensitive, delicate evocation of the relationship Proust would describe as his life’s “only purpose, its only sweetness, its only love, its only consolation.” Madame Proust is a well-conceived and insightful tribute to a woman who lived quietly and whose ambitions and hopes centered fixedly on her family’s well-being and her son’s fulfillment. 

Madame Proust by Evelyne Bloch-Dano, translated by Alice Kaplan
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226056422
291 pages