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Proust, Dreyfus, and the Art of True Impressions

An excerpt from Benjamin Taylor’s new biography of the great French writer

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
November 13, 2015
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Esther Werdiger

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

Marcel and his friends could not have known what was unfolding at the Statistics Section that spring, summer, and autumn. In March 1896 Mme Bastian—“the normal channel”—had handed on to Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, new chief of the Section, a second remarkable document retrieved from Schwartzkoppen’s trash bin, the so-called petit bleu, an express letter addressed in his hand to Esterhazy but evidently thrown out instead of being sent. Picquart, who would prove heroic and self-sacrificing in the Affair, inferred from this that the traitor must be Esterhazy, not Dreyfus. As proof he obtained a sample of Esterhazy’s handwriting and confirmed that it was identical—not similar but identical—to that of the bordereau. Armed with this certainty, Picquart then reviewed the documents of the dossier secret and saw that there was nothing in them of probative value. This was the turning point. Owing to Picquart the eventual vindication of Alfred Dreyfus became inevitable, despite dogged rear-guard actions by the army to spare itself a judicial review of the 1894 court-martial.

On May 16 Émile Zola published in Le Figaro his fierce and dazzling article “Pour les Juifs,” the most powerful account to date of the growing phenomenon of politicized Jew-hatred in France: “People, some of them friends of mine, tell me that they cannot abide Jews; that they shudder with repugnance upon shaking hands with them. … Embrace the Jews,” he implores France, “in order that we may enrich ourselves with their qualities. They do not lack for them.” It is a peril to the nation, he writes, “that such a return of fanaticism, urging even religious war, should have arisen in our time, in our great Paris, among our good people.”

One evening in October of 1897 Joseph Reinach, who represented Digne, capital of Alps-de-Haute-Provence, in the Chambre des Députés, had made the case at Mme Straus’s salon that it was Commandant Esterhazy who’d written the bordereau. Among those eminences present, Degas, Gustave Schlumberger, Jules Lemaître, and Jean-Louis Forain denounced Reinach on the spot and forever left 104, rue de Miromesnil. Mme Straus’s salon would henceforth be a center of Dreyfusard advocacy with Reinach as leader. In November a Parisian securities dealer, J. de Castro, upon seeing the published facsimile of the bordereau, recognized the handwriting as that of his client Esterhazy and was able to corroborate Picquart’s conclusion of the previous year.

It was at this moment that the military became actively complicit in efforts to hide the identity of the actual traitor; Major Joseph Henry, who had perjured himself at the courtmarital of 1894 by giving testimony against Dreyfus, concocted a piece of false evidence later known as the faux Henry—a letter purportedly from the Italian military attaché to Schwartzkoppen incriminating Dreyfus definitively—and handed it to General Gonse, deputy chief of staff of the army. A month later he began a series of successful attempts to smear General Picquart—incorruptible throughout, whatever his private distaste for Jews—as the puppet of Dreyfus’s brother, Mathieu.

On November 13 a man with an exceptional reputation for statesmanship, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, vice president of the Senate, published a letter in Le Figaro declaring that Dreyfus was innocent and that the true culprit was known to the Statistics Section. It was this letter that finally brought on the national crisis, Zola following up in Le Figaro with a defense of Scheurer-Kestner in the last sentence of which he coined the cri de bataille of Dreyfusism: “La verité est en marche, et rien n’arrêtera”—Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it. On December 13 his pamphlet “Letter to Youth,” a clarion to the Latin Quarter, went on sale.

It was three days later that Alphonse Daudet, no friend to Dreyfusards or Jews—though he’d been warmly hospitable to Marcel from their first meeting—died after his long struggle with syphilis. “Adieux,” Proust’s eulogy, was published in La Presse. One wonders about relations between Dreyfusard Marcel and the antisemitic Daudet household at this point. Like everyone, they would have seen on young Marcel’s face the map of Zion, and he spoke readily about his mother’s religious background. Yet somehow Léon, virulently bigoted all his life, would be the dedicatée of The Guermantes Way. One must conclude that the Daudets’ contempt for Jewish blood did not extend to Marcel. By the same token, Proust’s loathing for anti-Dreyfusards seems to have exempted the Daudets.

From the day Scheurer-Kestner’s letter appeared in Le Figaro Marcel campaigned on behalf of Dreyfus. Was this because he felt Jewish? Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent. (However, as Léon Blum pointed out in his Souvenirs sur l’affaire, the majority of acculturated Jews did not become Dreyfusard; they tended to remain silent, many of them convinced of the Captain’s guilt.)

About Jeanne’s response to the Affair we know virtually nothing. But that it roiled her household is not in doubt. On January 13, 1898, Zola’s seismic “J’accuse … !” appeared in Georges Clemenceau’s L’Aurore. In a state of exalted indignation France’s greatest living novelist argued for the culpability of Esterhazy, notwithstanding his recent “vindication” in a shabby court-martial behind closed doors, and denounced those on the General Staff guilty of shielding the traitor. Zola moreover challenged the army to prosecute him for having named names. One day later Clemenceau ran a “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” in support of Dreyfus and Zola. Among the several hundred signatories were Marcel and Robert Proust. Their enraged father did not speak to either for two weeks. Marcel himself had obtained Anatole France’s signature for L’Aurore and for this reason called himself—absurdly—“the first Dreyfusard.”

Three weeks after the appearance of “J’accuse … !” Zola’s first trial on charges of defaming the army began. Despite the considerable difficulty of rising at a respectable hour, Marcel managed to get himself to the courtroom gallery. Like Jean Santeuil, he would start “early from home so as to arrive in good time for the Zola trial and the Cour d’Assises, taking with him no more than a few sandwiches and a small flask of coffee, and there he stayed, fasting, excited, emotionally on edge, till five o’clock at which time he returned to the centre of the city—in a crowd of persons who were not, as he was, in that pleasing condition of men whose lives had been changed as the result of some special stimulus—feeling lonely and melancholy because the excitement was over.” But the fictional Jean attends the trial every day; Marcel managed to get there only a few times.

On May 23, 1898, Zola’s second libel trial began. Three weeks later he was convicted yet again and sentenced to serve one year in prison and pay a fine, whereupon he fled to London. Events were now moving quickly. Over the course of the summer and into the autumn Jean Jaurès—France’s great and tragic Socialist leader, destined to be assassinated in a Montmartre café at the onset of the Great War—published in La Petite République his series of unanswerable arguments for the innocence of Dreyfus, quickly collected in book form as Les Preuves, by which time Colonel Henry admitted to having forged the faux Henry. Arrested and confined at Mont-Valérien fortress, Henry slit his throat on the last day of August. This suicide, in effect a confession, prompted Mme Dreyfus to petition for a full judicial review of her husband’s conviction. On September 31, with Marcel somewhere in the throng, Jaurès delivered an electrifying address on the case before the Chamber of Deputies. This firsthand experience of the great orator contributed to Proust’s portrait of him as Couzon, the Socialist leader in Jean Santeuil. So moved was he by Picquart’s plight, powerfully told by Jaurès, that he sought for ways to get a copy of Pleasures and Days to the general in prison, which may not have been what Picquart most needed. Marcel had met him, albeit in passing, at one of the evenings that Georges Charpentier, publisher at Calmann-Lévy, organized on behalf of Zola, and was no different from other young authors in believing his book to be an all-purpose blessing.

In the opening pages of The Captive, volume five of the Search, Proust would dramatize the pitch of hysteria France had come to in those days. Basin de Guermantes inveighs against the treachery of Dreyfus and all his coreligionists: “That shocking crime is not simply a Jewish cause, but well and truly an affair of vast national importance which may bring the most appalling consequences for France, which ought to have driven out all the Jews, whereas I’m sorry to say that the sanctions taken up to the present have been directed (in an ignoble fashion, which should be overruled) not against them but against the most eminent of their adversaries, against men of the highest rank who have been cast aside to the ruin of our unhappy country.” The most eminent of the Jews’ adversaries, here referred to by the Duc de Guermantes, would have been Boisdeffre, Henry, and others of the conspiracy to shield Esterhazy. When forced to acknowledge that conspiracy, anti-Dreyfusards retreated to a new line of argument, calling it noble, self-sacrificing. Charles Maurras, for example, proclaimed the faux Henry “a patriotic forgery.”

Worth noting also is the extraordinary restaurant scene in part two of The Guermantes Way in which Saint-Loup runs gallantly to borrow the Prince de Foix’s vicuña cloak when he sees that the Narrator has taken a chill, then scampers back across the tops of the banquettes. We are told, bizarrely, that this restaurant is equipped with a “door reserved for the Hebrews.” This leap into the irreal—no restaurant had such a door—ably serves Proust in his rendering of France’s folly: “The little group which met to try to grasp and to perpetuate the fugitive emotions aroused by the Zola trial attached a similar importance to this particular café. But they were not viewed with favor by the young nobles who composed the other part of the clientele and had taken over a second room, separated from the other only by a flimsy parapet topped with a row of plants. These looked upon Dreyfus and his supporters as traitors.”

Finally, in Sodom and Gomorrah there is this: “A considerable period of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had to some extent seemed to justify the Dreyfusard thesis, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had greatly increased in violence, and from being purely political had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force that they never have at the beginning of a storm. ‘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 blunder 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.’ ”

On September 4, 1898, Esterhazy fled, first to Belgium, then to England, after a nephew revealed evidence of forged telegrams his uncle had sent in the effort to frame Picquart. Esterhazy’s delusional account, Le Dessous de l’Affaire Dreyfus, appeared at the end of the year. He afterward lived in Hertfordshire under the pseudonym Count Jean de Volmont.

But neither the suicide of Henry nor the flight of Esterhazy put an end to the Dreyfus Affair, which had another year to run, not to speak of its ghoulish afterlife. On November 24, 1898, Picquart’s court-martial on baseless charges of forgery and espionage began. Marcel signed a petition in the Colonel’s behalf that appeared in L’Aurore (though his name, not one to conjure with, was left off till the third time the petition ran).

On June 3, 1899, the Court of Cassation reversed the 1894 verdict against Dreyfus and ordered a new court-martial, this time at Rennes. One day later Zola returned from his months of English exile. Four days after that, Dreyfus began his journey back to France from Devil’s Island. On July 1, having arrived at Port-Haligan, he was transferred to Rennes, where the proceedings would include an attempt on the life of Ferdinand Labori, his (as well as Zola’s) lawyer, who escaped with a slight wound. Marcel sent Labori a presumptuous telegram praising “the good invincible giant.” As for the assailant, he was never identified. On September 9, despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Alfred Dreyfus was reconvicted, though magnanimously spared a second degradation. Ten days later President Émile Loubet offered him a pardon that, despite the implication of guilt, Dreyfus felt compelled to accept.


Regretting that the Affair had come between them, Proust would write to Pierre d’Orléans, a lieutenant under whom he’d served during his military year, that he wondered why friendships that could weather disagreements about art, morals, even politics, should have foundered on the guilt or innocence of this one man, so categorically had a question of fact, not principle, divided a nation and estranged friend from friend. “If a decorated general is Dreyfusard he immediately becomes despicable to those calling themselves friends of the army, if someone bearing a noble name is Dreyfusard the aristocracy renounce him, if a priest is Dreyfusard the Catholics abuse him. On the other hand, if a civilian is anti-Dreyfusard he acquires from this a military luster; if a radical is anti-Dreyfusard all the priests vote for him; if a Jew is anti-Dreyfusard the anti-Semites shield him and the Faubourg Saint-Germain embraces him. And there you have it, pure and simple.”

During those Dreyfus-mad months Marcel had traveled briefly and on his own to Amsterdam—it was in September 1898—to view a Rembrandt exhibition, the greatest of its kind up to then, 120 pictures at the newly opened Stedelijkmuseum. The essay he afterward wrote marked an important development of his own aesthetic. The artist, he writes there, is someone more subject to reality than other people, whose work is “in no way a parading of out-of-the-way qualities, but the expression of what had lain nearest to him in his life, and of what lies deepest in things.” This piece of writing is particularly significant for containing Proust’s first use of the word “translation” as the artist’s task. It will gain definitive statement in Time Regained when the Narrator says that “the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense it does not have to be ‘invented’ by a great writer—for it exists already in each one of us—has to be translated by him. The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.”

Still more prophetic for the Search is a Christmas letter to Marie Nordlinger, Reynaldo’s English cousin—a painter and sculptor—in which there is a first sketch of the involuntary memory theme. Marcel writes of how the recollections of Christmases past “return to us overlaid with the delectable honey of our personality, which we have unconsciously been depositing over the years while—engrossed in selfish pursuits—we paid no attention, and now suddenly it sets our hearts to beating.” He is twenty-eight and still nine years from the start of the as-yet-unimagined great work. But already one finds the slowly accreting conviction that unbidden memory is the artist’s passport to “true impressions,” as he’ll call them, that these alone “resuscitate the timeless man within me” and are the source of all beauty and all joy.

Excerpted from Proust: The Search, by Benjamin Taylor. Copyright © 2015 by Benjamin Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Benjamin Taylor is a founding member of the Graduate Writing Program faculty at the New School and the author or editor of six previous books, including The Book of Getting Even and Saul Bellow: Letters.