The Dreyfus Affair 1898

Proust and the Dreyfus Affair

Source: Marcel Proust, Choix de Lettres, presented by Philip Kolb. Paris, Plon, 1965;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

Marcel Proust (1871-1922), the greatest of French authors, abstained from politics most of his life, with the exception of the Dreyfus Affair, when he actively took up the defense of Captain Dreyfus. Traces of this appear throughout his masterpiece, “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” and its earlier version,?Jean Santeuil.” In this letter to his friend Mme Geneviève Strauss (née Halévy), daughter of the composer Jacques Fromental Halévy, widow of Georges Bizet, model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in Proust’s roman fleuve, and whose salon was a center of Dreyfusard activity, we see Proust attempting to enlist her aid in the fight.

[Around September 1898]
My dear little Madame Strauss:

M. [Anatole] France, at the request of M. Labori, would like a few well-known personalities to sign an address to Picquart, M. Labori feeling that this might impress the judges. They would like some new names for this. I promised M. France to write to you to ask you to reach out to M. d?Haussonville, who you can tell that it’s on M. France’s behalf. The address will purposely be conceived in terms so moderate that it will in no way commit the signatories concerning the Dreyfus Affair itself. And M. d?Haussonville, who has so much heart, such an elevated spirit, will perhaps not refuse you this, and like everyone else M. France feels that his name – which is in every way without peer – will have enormous importance for the future, not of the Affair, but of Picquart, which appears to be far darker. I speak of his future, for he is possessed of a serenity that elicits tender words from France, who is usually so detached. But if M. d?Haussonville is too much too hope for, if you don’t succeed or don’t wish to attempt it, you can fall back on Dufeuille, Ganderax or any distinguished person you know; on Pozzi, on whoever you can without taking too much trouble. But this trouble will be a pleasure for you, “for you are beautiful and he is unhappy.” But this must be done quickly.

I would have written to M. d?Haussonville myself, but since I hardly know him I?m afraid I would appear ridiculous and, more seriously, ineffective. I haven’t seen you since the Affair, once so Balzacian (Bertulus the investigating magistrate of Splendeur et Misère des Courtisanes; Christian Esterhazy, the provincial nephew of Illusions Perdues; du Paty du Clam the Rastignac who set up a meeting with Vautrin in the distant faubourgs) has become Shakespearean with the accumulation of its rapid denouements.

But let’s not skim over this subject which we?ll talk about in Trouville, where I hope we?ll see mama heal, which has just about happened.

Your respectful,

Speak only to the possible signatories of the address to Picquart so word of it doesn’t get out.