09.03.12 1:00 PM ET
David's Bookclub: The Guermantes Way
People don't usually credit him for it, but Marcel Proust has quite a lot to say about politics. In his third volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust dives deep into the great political controversy of his early life: the Dreyfus Affair.
The Affair in Proust is as much a social conflict as a political conflict, and of the most desperate kind. The narrator casually mentions that he fought duels over the Affair.* Anti-semitism - to this point an unspoken social force - abruptly emerges as a central organizing principle of Paris society. People sever relationships with old friends over the affair. The narrator's father refuses to speak to him for a week when he discovers his son has the "wrong" views - and is in turn outraged when a village neighbor refuses to speak to him. (The historic Proust was the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father.)
The France of A la Recherche is already riven by inherited quarrels even before the Affair erupts. The country is governed by the Republic founded in 1871, a regime despised by the more traditional half of the country. The narrator is greatly surprised to learn that the uncle of his future mistress holds a post in a government ministry. "[T]hey are Bontemps of the Bontemps-Chenut family, typical old-fashioned middle-class people, reactionary, clerical, tremendously strait-laced." To be a Catholic is almost by definition to oppose the Republic; to support the Republic is to reject the claims of the Catholic church.
That basic key to society is subdivided and complicated by the legacy of France's revolutions and counter-revolutions: the anti-republican opposition disputes whether royal power rightly belongs to the heirs of the Bourbons or the Bonapartes, whether it seeks to turn back the clock to 1860 or 1840 or 1820 or beyond 1789. It's a political world almost geologically layered - until the Dreyfus Affairs rips the layers apart like some terrible earthquake.
Proust is very alive to the silly and superficial way in which people often reach their political opinions. In the fourth volume of the novel, the ultra-aristocratic Duke de Guermantes will memorably fulminate against a friend's pro-Dreyfus views:
"I should never have believed it of him, an epicure, a man of practical judgment, a collector, who goes in for old books, a member of the Jockey [club], a man who enjoys the respect of all that know him, who knows all the good addresses, and used to send us the best port wine you could wish to drink, a dilettante, the father of a family!"
And when the duke's own nephew expresses pro-Dreyfus views, the duke laments:
"[P]ersonally, you know that I have no racial prejudice, all that sort of thing seems to me out of date, and I do claim to move with the times; but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?”
This is very funny. But Proust, who died only three weeks after Mussolini's entry into power in 1922, is shrewdly aware that the Dreyfus Affair has unleashed something new and important into French politics: a fusion of reaction and populism that will evolve into what we know as fascism.
The almost insanely snobbish Baron de Charlus, brother of the Duke de Guermantes, although himself a ferocious anti-semite and reactionary, worries at the social transformations wrought by the Drefyus Affair.
“All this Dreyfus business,” went on the Baron, still clasping me by the arm, “has only one drawback. It destroys society (I do not say polite society; society has long ceased to deserve that laudatory epithet) by the influx of Mr. and Mrs. Camels and Camelfies and Camelyards, astonishing creatures whom I find even in the houses of my own cousins, because they belong to the Patrie Française, or the Anti-Jewish, or some such league, as if a political opinion entitled one to any social qualification.”
What the baron recoils from in horror, others discern with a gimlet eye to the main social chance. The first volume of A la Recherche is dominated by the story of Charles Swann, a man of Jewish origins who has been absorbed into the Guermantes clan. Now dying of cancer, the Dreyfus Affair jolts him self-rediscovery. But his wife and soon-to-be widow grasps the Affair as an opportunity to overcome her disreputable personal history and force her way into high society.
Mme. Swann, seeing the dimensions that the Dreyfus case had begun to assume, and fearing that her husband’s racial origin might be used against herself, had besought him never again to allude to the prisoner’s innocence. When he was not present she went farther and used to profess the most ardent Nationalism; in doing which she was only following the example of Mme. Verdurin, in whom a middle-class anti-semitism, latent hitherto, had awakened and grown to a positive fury. Mme. Swann had won by this attitude the privilege of membership in several of the women’s leagues that were beginning to be formed in anti-semitic society, and had succeeded in making friends with various members of the aristocracy.
And those who do not join this new movement of society find themselves gradually losing ground. The Duchess of Guermantes, the grandest lady of the Faubourg St Germain at the novel's opening, slowly loses her commanding position precisely because her snobbishness outweighs her anti-semitism."I do think it perfectly intolerable," the duchess laments just before her star begins to sink,
It's an uncanny anticipation of the future, no less terrifying for being so farcical. Proust died at the comparatively young age of 51. Given slightly better health, he would have lived to see the Nazis march into Paris - and many of the writers mentioned in his work gladly collaborating with the occupiers. One of those writers, Charles Maurras, had corresponded with Proust in the 1890s, until the Affair severed their relations. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1944 for his collaborationist activities, he shouted on receiving the sentence, "C'est la revanche de Dreyfus." Which was getting things upside down with an irony that Marcel Proust would have appreciated, had he lived to hear it.
* The historical Proust did fight at least one duel, but it was provoked by a snide remark about his homosexuality by a literary critic, who also happened to be gay, not by anything to do with Dreyfus.