Non­fic­tion

Prous­t­ian Uncer­tain­ties: On Read­ing and Reread­ing In Search of Lost Time

  • Review
By – February 25, 2021

Through­out his dis­tin­guished career, his­to­ri­an Saul Friedlän­der has explored the ten­sion between his­to­ry and mem­o­ry, his work reveal­ing how the past comes back to haunt the present. In his 1978 mem­oir, When Mem­o­ry Comes, Friedlän­der revis­its his child­hood at the thresh­old of the Nazi inva­sion in 1930s Prague. He details his family’s flight to Paris, and his mem­o­ries of con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism while attend­ing a board­ing school in the French coun­try­side, where his par­ents had sent him to escape the dire fate of most for­eign-born Jews resid­ing in France dur­ing the War. Years lat­er, he learned of his par­ents’ death in Auschwitz, and began to exam­ine the impact and mean­ing of his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, going on to become one of the fore­most his­to­ri­ans of the Holocaust.

After read­ing Friedländer’s mem­oir, fel­low his­to­ri­an Peter E. Gor­don laud­ed its tru­ly Prous­t­ian ambi­tion: to save from obliv­ion the moments from child­hood that might oth­er­wise have been lost.” It is, there­fore, not sur­pris­ing that Friedlän­der, now in his late 80s, has turned his his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion to Mar­cel Proust’s mon­u­men­tal work, In Search of Lost Time—per­haps the most pro­found ren­der­ing of the mem­o­ry of child­hood and the expe­ri­ence of long­ing in all of literature.

Prous­t­ian Uncer­tain­ties is a deep read­ing of this enor­mous­ly chal­leng­ing lit­er­ary clas­sic. Friedlän­der writes for fel­low pas­sion­ate Prous­t­ian schol­ars fore­most, but the core themes are uni­ver­sal. He explores Proust’s ques­tion­ing of his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and his sex­u­al­i­ty, the over­whelm­ing pres­ence of the moth­er in the narrator’s imag­i­na­tion, and the com­plex fig­ure and func­tion of the novel’s nar­ra­tor, beau­ti­ful­ly delv­ing into the iri­des­cence of all things,” and illu­mi­nat­ing the evoca­tive pow­er of sensation.”

Packed with crit­i­cal ener­gy and shrewd insights, there is sheer joy in this reread­ing of Proust’s nar­ra­tive, invit­ing the read­er to dis­cov­er In Search of Lost Time on their own terms. With Pro­fes­sor Friedlän­der as a pas­sion­ate and learned guide, new and return­ing read­ers will get to expe­ri­ence Proust’s mind-expand­ing sen­su­al mode of remem­brance” for themselves.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

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