The factual origins of an unforgettable fictional character are the subject of this engrossing semi-scholarly “meditation” by a veteran French novelist, biographer, and literary scholar.
The work Raczymow (Writing the Book of Esther, not reviewed, etc.) thus explores is Proust’s multivolume 20th-century masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. And the character is that of Charles Swann, socialite and dilettante, lover of notorious demimondaine Odette de Crécy, and—this the source of his only conditional acceptance by the polite society through which Swann warily moves—a Jew. It has long been recognized that Proust based the figure of Swann on a real person named Charles Haas, whose personal history paralleled Swann’s at numerous crucial points. Raczymow therefore sets about “identifying the thread of fortuitous complicity between Proustian fiction and reality,” interviewing fellow literary researchers, combing through the Paris city archives, speculating on possible links between Haas and such notables as painter Edgar Degas, thespian Sarah Bernhardt (who wrote Haas several fulsome letters), and persecuted (Jewish) French army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Raczymow also considers contemporary Proustian avatars like actors Alain Delon (who played the malevolent Baron Charlus in Volker Schlondorff’s 1984 film Swann in Love) and Jeremy Irons (whose performance as Swann in that film all but persuades Raczymow that Haas may have been an Englishman). Beneath the lucubrations, the reader grasps Raczymow’s reluctant inferences that “To Proust, by definition, everything that is Jewish is debased”; that Haas/Swann incarnated for Proust the vanity of a life devoted to the imperatives of society; and that the “anonymity” into which Haas has seemingly sunk signifies the far reach of anti-Semitism—in literature as in life.
A thoughtful and unusual work, and a potentially dangerous one—in that it just might seduce one into neglecting other responsibilities and plunging once again into Proust’s intricate, seductive, and disturbing fictional world.