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Madame Proust

A Biography

Translated by Alice Kaplan
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time opens with one of the most famous scenes in literature, as young Marcel, unable to fall asleep, waits anxiously for his mother to come to his bedroom and kiss him good night. Proust’s own mother is central to the meaning of his masterpiece, and she has always held a special role in literary history, both as a character and as a decisive influence on the great writer’s career. Without knowing much about her, we think of her as the quintessential writer’s mother.

Now Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s touching biography acquaints Proust fans with the real Jeanne Weil Proust. Written with the imaginative force of a novel, but firmly grounded in Jeanne and Marcel Proust’s writings, Madame Proust skillfully captures the life and times of Proust’s mother, from her German-Jewish background and her marriage to a Catholic grocer’s son to her lifelong worries about her son’s sexuality, health problems, and talent. As well as offering intimate glimpses of the Prousts’ daily life, Madame Proust also uses the family as a way to explore the larger culture of fin-de-siècle France, including high society, spa culture, Jewish assimilation, and the Dreyfus affair. Throughout, Bloch-Dano offers sensitive readings of Proust’s work, drawing out the countless interconnections between his mother, his life, and his magnum opus.

Those coming to In Search of Lost Time for the first time will find in Madame Proust a delightful primer on Marcel Proust’s life and times. For those already steeped in the pleasures of Proust, this gem of a biography will give them a fresh understanding of the rich, fascinating background of the writer and his art.

Read an excerpt.

272 pages | 26 halftones, 5 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Biography and Letters

Jewish Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages


“Proust’s relationship with his mother, like much else to do with this greatest of all novelists, was exceptional. . . . .Bloch-Dano’s admirable biography paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive, cultured, sometimes sharp woman. . . . Bloch-Dano confidently charts the rituals of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie which Madame Proust, as the wife of an eminent professor of medicine, observed, along with her part in the genesis of one of the glories of world literature.”--Angus Trumble, Independent

Angus Trumble | Independent

"It is one of the many merits of this admirable biography of Proust’s mother that it invites one to return to the novel with perhaps a fuller understanding of Proust’s heredity, hinterland, and upbringing. . . . This fascinating book is full of interesting social and cultural observation, of information about French Jewish life, the position of Jews in society and, of course, the Dreyfus case. But it is essentially a study of one of the most remarkable and fruitful of mother-son relationships. As such it is a book that every Proustian will want to read."

Allan Massie | Literary Review

“A vivid, if highly impressionistic, account of the life of Jeanne Weil Proust, a woman who outwardly lived the life of a typical Jewish bourgeoise of the Third Republic, but who succeeded in raising France’s unlikeliest literary giant. . . . Madame Proust tempts us to read the big book in a new way: as the most fulsome possible answer to a mother’s wish to know what occupied her son.”

Thomas Meaney | New York Sun

"Serious readers of Marcel Proust are aware of how close the writer was to his mother. Now, through Bloch-Dano’s touching biography of Jeanne Weil Proust, translated by National Book Award nominee Kaplan, his many fans can better understand that closeness. . . . Bloch-Dano’s splendid book offers great insight into this loving pair and illustrates Jeanne’s influence on her son as a writer. Highly recommended to those interested in Proust and 20th-century French literature."

Library Journal

"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 the Dreyfus affair but also ably recreates the bourgeois milieu, familial and cultural context, and the physical layout of the Paris in which Marcel Proust lived. . . . 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."

Aysha Somasundaram |

“Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s Madame Proust provides a wealth of new details about Marcel Proust’s formative years and illustrates, as never before, the importance of his Jewish heritage. She does so by concentrating on the most important love relationship in Proust’s life: the great affection he had for his mother. Carefully researched, richly documented, and skillfully translated by Alice Kaplan, this book deserves to be read by all who are interested in the life and works of Marcel Proust.”­—William C. Carter, author of Marcel Proust: A Life

William C. Carter

“Using previously unknown documents, Evelyne Bloch-Dano has made a first-rate contribution to our understanding of Marcel Proust’s mother, her Jewish ancestors and her family’s social environment. Highly recommended.”--Jean-Yves Tadié, author of Marcel Proust: A Life

Jean-Yves Tadie

“If the wealthy Weils hadn’t married off their daughter Jeanne to Dr. Adrien Proust in 1870, our sense of the past would be very different. Jeanne’s story, seen here—inevitably—through the scrim of her son’s immortal evocation of lost time, evokes the richly upholstered interiors of Paris in the late nineteenth century.”

Rachel Brownstein, author of Becoming a Heroine

"No one was more important in Marcel Proust’s life than his mother. . . . By focusing on the mother, French scholar Bloch-Dano brings into relief the family’s Jewish background, which the Prousts, like many French Jews at the time, downplayed in seeking assimilation into French society. . . . The limited number of sources available for the project . . . makes this book less an academic biography of Jeanne Proust and more a rich portrait of the bourgeois lifestyle in which Marcel Proust grew up."


"It is crucial to get the cultural and social facts of Proust’s Jewish background firmly in focus before making claims about how they might have affected his writing, and Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s carefully researched biography of Jeanne Weil Proust performs this task admirably."

Robert Alter | New Republic

"A welcome resource for Proust’s many anglophile readers, and a useful companion to the several biographies of Proust."

Tony O'Brien | Metapsychology

"Madame Proust shows how painstaking research of literary and cultural information, finally synthesized and carefully evaluated, can result in illumination. . . . The book is packed with information that ranges from detailed historical backgrounds of individuals or groups, through the general status of the Jewish population in France."

Lynn Hoggard | Southern Humanities Review

Table of Contents

Translator’s note
       Part One

1 A Daughter to Marry
2 Monsieur Proust and Mademoiselle Weil
3 Very French Israelites
4 At number 40 bis
5 Mother and Daughter

       Part Two

6 A Change of Regime
7 Mother and Son
8 Summers at Auteuil
9 The Goodnight Kiss
10 A Small World
11 Mistress of the House
12 The Sickly Child
13 Taking the Waters
14 A Model Couple
15 From Treble to Bass
16 A Woman of Forty
17 Vergiss mein nicht

        Part Three

18 A Woman in Black at the Beach
19 The Broken Glass
20 On Guard!
21 The Soul of Venice
22 Jeanne’s Address Book
23 A Wedding and a Funeral
24 La Vie à Deux


        1. Questionnaire Sent to the Jewish Elite in 1806
        2. Napoleon and the Central Consistory
Genealogical Charts
        The Weil Family
        The Berncastel Family
        Karl Marx and Marcel Proust



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