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.