It so happens that in the last few weeks I have been reading books by or about the above three individuals, all of them Jewish (Proust’s mother was Jewish), all of them great thinkers and/or writers, and all of them (except Proust) living at roughly same period – the first half of the twentieth century (Proust died in 1922). What strikes me are the similarities in the way all three viewed the world around them despite the differences between them as regards their spheres of concern, physical location and period (and the fact that all three sported a moustache).
For the last few years I have been making it part of my summer vacation routine to read one of the six volumes that comprise Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ I do my best to read the original French, but often have to resort to the aid of the Moncrieff-Kilmartin English translation. Still, the beauty of the long, meandering sentences is preserved, together with the interesting philosophical divagations and the portrayal of the world of upper-class French society—at times disturbing, at others amusing, and always fascinating. A large part of one volume is taken up by an account of the divisive effect of the Dreyfus Affair, and Proust makes it clear where he stands on the subject. Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first volume, ‘Swann’s Way,’ I was able to buy a special edition of the Figaro magazine devoted to discussing and analyzing various aspects of the book in great detail.
For my last birthday I was given the biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson, which attempts to cover all aspects of the scientist’s life. For me, of course, the scientific explanations are rather heavy going, but the account of his personal life, his political views and his attitude to Zionism are of great interest. It comes as no surprise that the author of the Relativity Theory advocated socialism, internationalism and European unity at a time when the continent was being torn to shreds by the First World War. Einstein suffered professionally from anti-Semitism long before Hitler’s rise to power, and this, together with his warm personal relations with Chaim Weizmann, led him to support Zionism and direct fierce criticism against those Jews who (long before the Second World War) advocated assimilation. Einstein regarded being Jewish as a form of ‘tribal kinship’ rather than indicating affiliation to an ethnic or religious group.
Some time ago I downloaded Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, ‘The World of Yesterday’ (translated from the German by Benjamin Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger), to my Kindle, and as I began to read it I was immediately transported to the world of late 19th-century Vienna. Zweig describes in agonizing detail the stultifying school routine he was forced to endure, and from which he escaped into literature and writing, gaining recognition as a poet and author at a very early age. His success as a writer brought him into contact with many of the leading thinkers of the age, and he was active in the group of intellectuals who sought to further European unity in the period before the First World War.
He frankly admits that they were convinced that the nations of Europe would not descend into the folly of war, and were taken by surprise when it actually happened. Stefan Zweig’s rich vocabulary, rolling sentences and insightful account of the cultural and intellectual movements of the early twentieth century give the reader a vivid idea of what was happening in Europe on many levels. He was friendly with Freud, and as Hitler’s campaign to eliminate every vestige of Jewish life in Europe proceeded the two pondered over the fate of the Jews, whose aspiration to become part of the European nations and cultures in which they lived had been so cruelly betrayed. Now, Zweig remarks, all the diverse elements of the Jewish populations of Europe have finally been forced to acknowledge that they are one community, sharing a common, tragic destiny.
Forced to flee Europe as Hitler’s army dominated ever-increasing swathes of the European continent, Zweig found refuge first in Britain, then in America, and finally in Brazil, where he and his wife took their own lives in 1942, depressed and despondent about the fate of Europe and Western civilization. Einstein was also forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, but found a safe haven at Princeton University, and died in 1954 aged 76, just as he was preparing to give a radio address to mark the seventh anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.
Neither Proust (who died at his Paris home, where he had lived as a recluse for the previous twenty years taking drugs of various kinds, suffering from asthma and devoting himself to his writing) nor Zweig were aware of the founding of the State of Israel. Only Einstein, who had supported it from an early stage, lived to see it come into existence, though he declined the invitation to become its President. The concept of Zionism was not known to Proust. But perhaps if Zweig had been able to see into the future his act of self-annihilation could have been avoided.
Regardless of Israel, Zionism and all that, all three men live on in their writings, ideas and achievements.