Authors: Natalie David-Weill
Copyright © Editions Robert Laffont, S. A., Paris, 2011
Translation copyright © 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
Originally published in France under the title Les mères juives ne meurent jamais
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.
Print ISBN: 978-1-62872-407-3
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62872-408-0
Printed in the United States of America
Three mothers are bragging about how much their sons spoil them.
The first one says: “My son loves me so much that for my last birthday, he gave me a fur coat.”
Not to be outdone, the second one crows: “Is that all? My son saved up for a year to send me on a cruise in the Caribbean.”
As for the third, she has them both beat. “My son is the most extraordinary of all,” she gloats. “He sees a shrink three times a week just so he can talk about me.”
For Charles, Paul, and Marie
(in chronological order)
• Amalia Freud, née Nathanshon (1835–1930). Wife of Jacob. Mother of Sigmund, Julius, Anna, Rosa, Mitzi, Dolfi, Paula and Alexander
• Jeanne Proust, née Weil (1849–1905). Wife of Adrien. Mother of Marcel and Robert
• Pauline Einstein, née Koch (1858–1920). Wife of Hermann. Mother of Albert and Maja
• Minnie Marx, née Schönberg (1865–1929). Wife of Samuel. Mother of the Marx Brothers: Leonard (Chico), Adolph (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo), and Herbert (Zeppo)
• Louise Cohen, née Ferro (1870–1945). Wife of Marco. Mother of Albert
• Mina Kacew, née Iosselevna-Borisovskaia (1883–1941). Wife of Ariah. Mother of Romain (known as Romain Gary)
• Nettie Königsberg, née Cherry (1906–2002). Wife of Martin. Mother of Allan (known as Woody Allen) and Letty
A Mother’s Heaven
God couldn’t be everywhere, so he created mothers.
“She’s crying. I think she’s crying.”
“Maybe she doesn’t realize she’s dead?”
“That’s no reason to be sad.”
“You’ve obviously forgotten the state you were in when you showed up in Jewish Mothers’ Heaven.”
“How would you know? You weren’t even here yet yourself.”
“I heard all about it.”
“Whatever you say, Miss Know it all.”
Still bickering, the two elderly ladies shuffled closer to Rebecca, who lay, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. How could she be crying? She never lamented. She’d forgotten what it was like to cry, or to be confused, or even surprised. But the tears still came, as if her whole body was slipping out of her grasp, as if she was no longer even trying to hold on. She couldn’t understand what was happening to her. Until that very moment, she had always succeeded in avoiding the unexpected. Long ago, she had decided to take control of her life, her destiny and her emotions. She had imposed the most rigorous self-discipline and had followed it to the letter. She loved order the way other people enjoyed a relaxing vacation. She had lists for everything: errands, books she had read and books she meant to read (the longest list by far), ideas, trips, appointments . . . Rebecca left nothing to chance.
To be caught so completely off guard was bewildering. What had happened and where was she? She looked more closely at the two women: they were old enough to be her grandmothers, or more likely her great-grandmothers, judging from their Twenties-era gowns. Had she gone back in time? Was this a costume party? Why were they staring and whispering? Was this someone’s home, one of theirs? She tried to get to her feet, using a table for support. Why did she notice the quality of the mahogany when she felt so utterly forlorn?
The smaller of the two women motioned to Rebecca to sit down on an overstuffed black velour sofa. Her almond-shaped, dark eyes were vividly made-up, but their beauty couldn’t hide her time-worn features or the fact that her lace dress and hat, whose netting was turned up at one corner, looked straight from a vintage rag shop. Yet her plumpness gave her an air of confidence. She smiled benevolently at Rebecca and asked in a kind voice:
“What’s your name, dear?”
“Rebecca Rosenthal. What’s yours?”
“I’m Louise Cohen, Albert’s mother,” the little woman replied. “I imagine you’ve heard of him. . .”
“Albert Cohen’s mother? The author of
Belle du Seigneur
is your son?” Rebecca couldn’t hide the awe she always felt at meeting someone famous.
“Didn’t I tell you that Albert was famous?” Louise gushed, turning towards her taller, more imposing companion, who shot back competitively:
“And the Marx Brothers? I suppose you’ve heard of them?”
“Don’t tell me you’re their mother, too?”
Minnie Marx burst out laughing, giving Rebecca the opportunity to study her more closely: finger waves crowned her round, over-powdered face, marking a stark contrast with her brightly painted lips and black dress, which was held in place at the breast by a brooch. She came straight from an Erckmann-Chatrian novel, Rebecca thought.
“They never would have become famous without me!”
“That’s quite enough bragging, Minnie; you’ll tire Rebecca.”
“On the contrary,” interjected Rebecca. “I adore the Marx Brothers. When I was younger, I went every Sunday to see their films. My favorites were
. They were the best medicine for a dull childhood! I loved Groucho’s big black mustache—that New York accent, that sense of the absurd. He always made me laugh the most.”
“More than Chico?” Minnie wondered.
Not wanting to disappoint the mother of the Marx Brothers, Rebecca launched into her memories.
“They were all so funny. What I liked best, though, was finding the same scenes in all the films: Harpo at his harp, Chico’s Italian accent, and Margaret Dumont, always so indignant when she found she’d been tricked all over again by that irresistible Groucho.”
“I can see you’re pretty taken with Groucho,” remarked Minnie.
“Whoever thought up the ‘walk this way’ gag was a genius,” Rebecca added.
Minnie couldn’t stop herself from laughing heartily again while imitating Groucho’s characteristic stooped gait and cigar-smoking.
“How is it you have nothing to say about Albert?” wondered Louise Cohen out loud.
“I was enthralled by
Belle du Seigneur!
Solal is intelligent, handsome, seductive and so wretched, I was crazy about him. I always thought the author must have been very much like him.”
Louise Cohen blushed with pride.
“Exactly! Even if he always denied it, Albert was like Solal, his hero, in more ways than one.”
It seemed to Rebecca as if she were taking a test for which no one had told her the question. All she could be sure of was that she was expected to display an encyclopedic knowledge of the Marx Brothers and Albert Cohen and shower them with praises. She’d managed well enough so far but she was surprised by how much she wanted to pass this exam when its purpose remained unclear. What was the point of placating these women? Was she really dead? How could she have died and not know it? She hadn’t traveled through any tunnel, hadn’t seen any white light. Her life hadn’t flashed before her eyes . . .
“I heard you say I was dead. That’s impossible. I didn’t feel anything.”
“You just don’t remember,” Minnie said gently.
Louise Cohen asked her what had happened just before she arrived there.
Rebecca looked herself over. She recognized her favorite green sweater, her suede pants that showed off her legs so well, her high-heeled boots that pinched her feet. The only unfamiliar thing was her surroundings: she was in a sort of living room she had never seen before.
“What is the last thing you remember?” Louise Cohen asked again.
“Stop torturing the poor girl!” protested Minnie. “She’s had quite a shock already. Leave her alone!”
“You’re the one who started it, Minnie. Don’t blame me. Rebecca is fine, just a bit confused. There’s nothing unusual about that.”
How could these women talk about her as if she wasn’t there? Rebecca, who hated any violation of her privacy, felt like the new girl at boarding school who hadn’t yet gotten her bearings. The whole thing was impossible. Could she really be sitting with the mothers of Albert Cohen and the Marx Brothers? How did they know each other? And why did they continue to sit together if they only argued about everything?
“You were asking me if I could remember anything,” Rebecca ventured. Curiosity was getting the best of her. What did she have to lose?
“I remember being thrown from my car. I remember that the rain was soaking my clothes and, a few seconds later, I felt a terrible pain.”
Minnie took pity on her:
“How old are you? You’re just a child.”
“Thirty-eight. That’s not all that young, you know.”
“That depends on the person.”
Louise Cohen took Minnie Marx by the arm and whispered that this was no time to ruin everything. For once something new was happening, she wanted all the details. Angering Rebecca wouldn’t help her admit that she was dead. If they went about this the wrong way, it could upset her even more and she might refuse to tell them anything, or worse, go away!
Minnie dismissed her companion’s argument with a wave of the hand:
“It’s not Rebecca you’re trying to spare but yourself.”
“Do you have anything better to do?” despaired Louise.
“No, you’re right.”
Together they turned to face Rebecca once again. She was deep in thought.
“So, it was a car accident?” said ventured Louise, hoping to start Rebecca talking.
Rebecca began to tremble, and the pain that had crushed her earlier struck her again with sudden force.
“We’re here to help you,” offered Minnie in a disarmingly gentle tone of voice. “We know exactly what you’re feeling.”
The two women watched her patiently. They waited. They had nothing but time. Rebecca tried to remember more. Speaking softly, she recounted the facts as they had happened.
“I couldn’t see anything and the minutes dragged on. I had hair and mud in my eyes but I could make out other cars. Strangely, they appeared to be driving sideways. I thought it would make a beautiful scene in a film, as if it was all taking place far from me. In fact, I was lying on the asphalt and I could see the traffic on the highway from underneath my car. Anyone else would have tried to hold on, but not me; I wanted it to end as quickly as possible. I could hear footsteps, people running and calling in my direction, sirens in the distance. . . That’s when I lost consciousness, I think.”
She was panic-stricken now at the thought of her own premature death and everything she had left undone. So many appointments that week alone. She was far too busy to die!
“Busy with what?” Minnie wanted to know.
“I’m a French professor at the Sorbonne. I have lectures to prepare, exams to correct, students to check up on . . . More importantly, I have a son, Nathan, and he’s all alone now.”
Suddenly powerless before the facts, Rebecca let herself sink into despair: she was dead, it was obvious to her now. At first, she had been relieved that the excruciating pain had gone away, but in retrospect, she regretted having taken the easy way out by letting herself die. She ought to have thought about her son. But there was nothing to be gained by complaining. She was dead and she was afraid, not of having reached the end of her life, but of having left Nathan behind.
Louise tried to console her: it wasn’t her fault she had died. She hadn’t killed herself, after all.
“It was an accident. You couldn’t have prevented it. You have nothing to be angry at yourself for.”
Lost in thought, Rebecca was silent now. This troubled Louise, who took Minnie aside.
“Do you think she has a depressive streak?”
“How would I know? I only met her a few minutes ago, just like you.”
“Do something to cheer her up. It would be a shame if she left. You know how to make people laugh!”
Minnie wasn’t sure she could help this new woman in their midst. She seemed as distant as a statue. What’s more, she looked nothing like them with her slim figure and blonde hair that fell loosely around her shoulders. She was even wearing pants! One thing was sure: she was more stricken than the others who came here; she was worrying far too much about this son of hers.
“What will become of Nathan without me?” wondered Rebecca. “I know him inside and out: his silences, his laughing fits, his pet peeves. I can read all his moods. I know he needs two pillows and that he hates to have the bedcovers on top of him. I know his sleepy morning grin that makes me want to hug him, and the way he tries not to smile when he’s proud of himself. I’m the only one who can stand that loud Indian music he listens to and who compliments him when he tries to dress nicely, even though he wears the same identical white button-down shirts. I always could find a way to cheer him up.”
“He’ll learn to take care of himself, don’t you worry,” said Louise as politely as she could.
“We think we’re indispensable,” Minnie continued firmly. “But I can assure you that your son will manage very well without you. I saw the same thing happen with my own boys . . .”
Rebecca interrupted her.
“We had a fight the last time I saw him. I told him he’d never amount to anything, and he stormed out without a word.”
Louise Cohen was shocked. How could a mother criticize the apple of her eye?
“Just because you never stood up to your Albert didn’t make you a better mother,” Minnie told her. “I yelled at my boys all the time. They thought I was strict, but they obeyed me. And they thanked me later.”
Her remark irritated Rebecca.
“But you didn’t die in the middle of an argument with one of them.”
“No, I have to admit that would be horrible.”
Louise elbowed Minnie. She could be so utterly tactless. This led Minnie to make fun of the “apple of her eye.” After all, Louise had hardly shown much consideration for Rebecca herself.
“Maybe if I tell you what happened you’ll understand,” Rebecca interrupted them. “Nathan’s studying law. Not so long ago, he had to take an exam, but he gave up halfway through. He never said a word to me; it was a colleague who told me the story later. When I confronted him, he told me it was none of my business. He said he hated law, that he was only doing it to make me happy, so I could brag about ‘my son the lawyer.’ He started yelling at me that it was his life and if he felt like failing an exam, that was his business. To think that I had prided myself on the fact that he had been such an easy teenager! ‘My life is already ruined and I’m only eighteen and it’s all your fault, and that's what matters, not some stupid exam,’ he shouted. Now I realize he was right.”
“No, no, no! Absolutely not!” Minnie exclaimed. “You knew what was best for him, and that meant taking the exam. He shouldn’t have argued with you, and you shouldn’t doubt yourself.”
“Are you kidding? I was a monster! I looked at him coldly and said how much he had disappointed me, and refused to utter another word. He slammed the door behind him when he left. The accident happened a few hours later.”
Louise Cohen was horrified by Rebecca’s story. Far worse than her sudden death was the humiliating blow she had dealt her son!
Rebecca continued to talk, oblivious to the disastrous effect she was having on her audience. She felt driven to tell them everything, as if speaking could erase the regrets that were tormenting her.
“I suppose Nathan will feel guilty about my death. He must be telling himself that if he hadn’t been so confrontational, I wouldn’t have lost my temper . . . and that maybe I could have avoided that stupid accident!”
“Really? Could you have avoided it?”
Tears filled Rebecca’s eyes. Louise took her by the hand and addressed her in a sympathetic tone of voice, even though she was appalled by the younger woman’s attitude.
“Now, now. Everything will be fine,” she soothed.
Why were these strange women so attentive to her? Rebecca was utterly miserable.
“How do you know? Nathan is an orphan now. I know what he’s going through. When my mother died, I was convinced she was there watching me. I used to ask her advice, I shared everything that was happening in my life. I was ten years old and talking to her was a kind of consolation. My father, on the other hand, never spoke of her. He belonged to that generation that never expressed any emotions—to him, complaining was a criminal offense and talking about oneself indecent. Maybe that’s why I felt abandoned . . .”
“Nathan won’t necessarily have the same reaction as you did,” Louise tried to convince her. “Besides, he’ll go through a lot of different phases, from despair to sadness to an almost serene nostalgia.”
“Albert Cohen never got over your death. In
Book of My Mother
, he begs to see you again, and he does, in his dreams, long after you’re gone. Even when you’re hiding in a tiny village under a false identity, he feels as close to you as when the two of you lived together. He reproaches you for your selfishness in leaving him; he accuses you of not loving him anymore. And if my calculations are correct, Cohen was forty-four years old when you died. He was an adult and already famous! If he was unable to deal with his grief, imagine what a child like Nathan must be feeling!”
Minnie leaned close to Rebecca:
“Well, try thinking about our feelings! It was just as difficult for us to leave our children behind, to let go, and to realize their lives would go on fine without us. The others will tell you the same thing.”
“Oh, you’ll see; we aren’t the only ones here. There are plenty of mothers: Marcel Proust’s, Sigmund Freud’s, Romain Gary’s . . .”
Rebecca let out a relieved burst of laughter. She was a mother, and she was Jewish. Did that automatically make her the Jewish mother of jokes and stories? Was her presence here among so many famous women proof that her son would be famous someday too?
“Are there only Jewish mothers in this place?”
“Not all Jewish mothers are Jewish,” opined Minnie. “Or mothers, either. My husband was a Jewish mother, just like you and me and everyone here. It’s an expression, that’s all: a synonym for being loving, devoted, heroic, possessive, demanding, paranoid, anxious, unbearable, nosy, and always obsessed with one’s children, from their food to their safety.”
“So, you’re all Jewish too?”
“That’s the way it is, don’t blame us,” said Louise.
Minnie Marx was explaining that the concept of the “Jewish mother” was fairly recent. Starting in the early twentieth century, Jewish mothers were thought to be maternal, protective and loving. That was before American novelists like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth transformed them into “Yiddish mamas” better known for their stifling, even pathological fixation on their children.
“Woody Allen helped on that score, too,” Rebecca added.
“Jewish mothers didn’t only live in New York City, you know,” said Louise Cohen. “Albert wrote
Book of My Mother
in 1954, in France.”
Minnie addressed Louise in the gentlest voice she could manage so as not to offend her:
“Jewish mothers have always existed, it’s true: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Jochebed, the mother of Moses . . . As a concept, however, it’s an American invention that first became famous in 1964 with Dan Greenberg’s book:
How to Be a Jewish Mother
. That changed everything.”
“Is Woody Allen’s mother here?” asked Rebecca.
“No,” replied Louise.
“You’ve never seen her anywhere?” she insisted.
“Yes, but she didn’t stay with us for very long.”
“Why? I’m a fan of Woody Allen.”
“So am I,” agreed Minnie, but she said nothing more on the subject of this missing mother.
Rebecca made a mental note to pursue the conversation later, at least to get some answers. Their explanations were not especially helpful. For the first time, her mind turned to her funeral. How many times had she wondered what it would be like? She could picture her best friend in tears, her colleagues speaking in hushed tones. The movie of her memorial service passed before her eyes. There were people crying, others who just came to sign the register, too rushed or too harried to take an hour out of their schedules. Family and friends surrounded her son. And even if, when she thought about that moment, she always imagined Nathan’s father, Anthony, racked with grief, she suspected that in reality he wouldn’t come at all. He had left her soon after Nathan’s birth and had never become close to his son. Still, she loved the idea of him in mourning because whenever his name came up, her hands shook, her chin trembled, her voice cracked, her heart raced and her thoughts became a jumbled mess. Eighteen years after they had met, she still had the same romantic feelings for him. She lost herself in thought again, imagining her son standing before the congregation at the synagogue to say a few heartfelt and reassuring words about grief and loss.
She was drawn back to her surroundings by Louise.
“Do you have any photos with you?” she wanted to know.
Rebecca reached automatically for her handbag. Her handbag! She had forgotten its very existence until that moment but, seeing it next to her, she realized that tired leather purse had become more valuable to her than her closest friend. Going through its familiar contents made her feel a little less disoriented. The school photos of Nathan were still there: so many Nathans, from kindergarten to senior year. If boys tend to look alike in school photos, Nathan was no exception: neatly parted hair when he was five, shaggy bangs designed to hide the glasses he hated when he was ten and a tangle of hair and braces when he was fifteen.
“He’s so handsome!” Louise exclaimed when she had looked at them all. “You must have loved him terribly.”
“I adored him! He looks like a Persian miniature with his brown curls and his almond-shaped eyes.”
“With such a blonde mother, he must take after his father,” Louise remarked.
In fact, Nathan resembled Anthony so much that she had often had difficulty disassociating him from her feelings for his father and treating him as his own person. Seeing him always filled her with a mix of happiness and heartache, sending her flying from the most genuine admiration to the sharpest fear that he would never amount to anything.
“Nathan loses his keys all the time, he forgets appointments, he throws his money away—he would never do a thing if I didn’t nag him! His bedroom is such a mess that it’s impossible for him to find anything, even if he wanted to. He’s lost without me. When he was little and he struggled to put on his coat, I did it for him, and I tied his laces too, to spare him the trouble. I even did his homework instead of explaining it to him.”
“You were impatient,” suggested Louise. “You didn’t want to waste time.”
“It’s true. I could never bear delays of any kind. I wanted him to be perfect, but I didn’t bother to show him how. Now I’m afraid I raised a good-for-nothing. How will he ever manage without my help?”
“That’s what every Jewish mother asks herself,” Louise Cohen reassured her.
I was always a child of four to her.
And with her hands uplifted and spread out like sunbeams she would bestow on me a priest-like blessing. Then she would give me an almost animal look, vigilant as a lioness, to see if I was still in good health.
Louise Cohen was in a mood to chat, so Rebecca decided to indulge her. She wanted some reassurance that she had done a good job raising Nathan and she was curious to find out how the mother of Albert Cohen had made such a talented man of her only son. How had Louise Ferro, the daughter of an Italian lawyer, born in Corfu in 1870, who spoke a Venetian dialect at home, managed to raise a major figure of French literature? Besides the love she clearly bore him, she had no obvious other advantage as far as Rebecca could tell.
“Were you a demanding mother?” Rebecca questioned her. “Did you instill in him a sense of responsibility from a young age?”
“Quite the opposite. I did everything for him. I buttered his toast until he was a teenager. Every single breakfast was an act of love. He was only five when we arrived in Marseille, and I had to leave for work very early in the morning, so I prepared his coffee in a thermos and wrote him a note to button up his coat when it was cold, to wash well, especially behind the ears—it’s so easy to forget—to look both ways before crossing the street. I always did my best to sound cheerful because I thought it must be terribly sad to wake up alone in a silent apartment. Sometimes, I even left a photograph of myself on the table: a mere paper companion, but it was something. He must hold the memory dear since he describes our morning ritual in
Book of My Mother
“What kind of work did you do?”
“I helped my husband Marco at his shop, 18 rue des Minimes. We lived next door at number 20. I would seize any chance to go see Albert, but it wasn’t easy. I never sat down all day; we sold eggs wholesale, and it was backbreaking work. I had to sort them first by weight, then by the date they were laid, which I had to double check by holding each egg up to the light. Then I packed them in straw-lined crates by the dozen, neatly lined up. Then the crates had to be carried out and sent to the clients. It was exhausting.”
Minnie Marx tripped over her long skirt and nearly fell on all fours in the middle of the crammed sitting room. There were rugs piled on top of each other, chairs, tables covered with curios and boxes, candlesticks and lamps. Had each of these women brought along her most prized possessions?
“Are you alright? Did you hurt yourself?” Rebecca jumped up.
“Minnie tripped on purpose,” observed Louise.
“Why would she do that?”
“To interrupt me, of course.”
Rebecca went to help Minnie, who was cursing under her breath:
“That Louise can be so rude! She thinks she’s the only person who ever had a hard life, and with only one son. You’ve seen for yourself now how selfish she is; she doesn’t even care if I’ve twisted my ankle or broken my wrist.”
Louise Cohen simply ignored her, steering Rebecca away to tell her all about Albert’s childhood.
“Oh, pay me no attention! Really, I’m fine,” called a frustrated Minnie after them.
Rebecca had noticed that each of these women seemed to expect her full attention and she felt like a new toy they were fighting over and would eventually discard when the game no longer amused them. She didn’t know whom to favor. Louise, for her part, seemed determined to choose for her, and continued her story.
“My boy was smart and serious beyond his years. He made me want to cry. He refused to come home to an empty apartment so he would wait for me on the staircase, in the dark. He knew I’d finally come home to make supper. He made up stories while he waited. That’s how he convinced himself that everything he saw around him existed in miniature in his head. If he was at the seashore, he was sure that the Mediterranean was rolling its waves over tiny rocks, with tiny fish and a tiny sun, right in his own head. He created characters for his stories, too. He was always a writer, from his earliest days. Even when we lived in Corfu and he was so small, he saw everything there was to see on that island, that’s why he chose it as the setting for his novels.”
Whenever she spoke of her son, Louise Cohen’s face lit up. Her motherly pride softened her rude and sometimes austere demeanor. Rebecca was fascinated by Corfu and how the family had arrived in Marseille. Besides, she loved nothing better than how childhood stories revealed who a person would become.
Minnie didn’t hesitate to interrupt. She’d heard it all a hundred times before.
“Shall I tell you about Dornum?”
“That obscure German village where you were born is of no interest, Minnie. Corfu, on the other hand, is an island bathed in sunlight and honey. Albert named it Cephalonia for his trilogy about the ‘Valiant,’ where he describes the most beautiful island in the world, fragrant with citrus trees and olive trees. And the sea: ‘like an immense crystal that hardly a wave disturbs.’ He remembers the perfume of jasmine infused with the saltwater smell. His whole universe is pure poetry.”
Louise had Corfu in her blood as she and Albert had lived in harmony with its seasons. They had walked on its beaches, along its fortifications and in its busy streets, “crisscrossed by lines of laundry set to dry in the sun, blue, red, yellow, green . . .” They were inseparable on their island.
“That’s enough; I’m leaving you. This bucolic scene is getting on my nerves,” announced Minnie, getting to her feet.
“Where will she go?” Rebecca asked Louise.
“She’ll be back for dinner, don’t worry.”
Louise Cohen stretched out full length on the couch as her girlhood memories of Corfu came back to her.
“I never dreamed I was living the happiest years of my life. The Mediterranean climate rocked me, bathed me. I didn’t worry about the future. I was just happy having nothing else to do but be a mother. I was so proud of my son: From the day he was born, I was his adoring servant; years later, I would still sometimes get up in the middle of the night to make him marzipan in case he woke up hungry. Albert knew it, too. Didn’t he write: ‘My mother had no
: she had a son?’ I was right to go to such lengths to make him happy because he put all those memories—watching me make quince jam or the days he spent home from school sick—into
Book of My Mother
. He cherished every moment we spent together.”
It had never occurred to Rebecca that raising a child could be so simple. She could still remember how she worried incessantly over her baby: was he warm enough? Was he breathing normally? Was he bored? Could such an exceptional baby as hers be satisfied with merely eating and sleeping? She couldn’t stop obsessing over this child who had never asked to be born. She hardly slept. Like Louise, she would go frequently into his room at night—not to admire him but to reassure herself. She would even wake him to make sure he was alright. He became the center of her universe and he would make her pay for it later.
Nathan must have been twelve years old the night he refused to let her go out on a date. She had put on a pretty dress and was ready to leave, but just as she was closing the door behind her, she heard screaming. Was he making a scene or was he truly frightened? She tried reasoning with him; he cried until he nearly choked. She told him she had the right to live her own life, too, sometimes. He replied in all seriousness that she had sacrificed that right when he was born. She laughed, and she stayed home.
A beautiful, tall woman entered noiselessly.
“Jeanne Proust,” Louise murmured. “Just so you know, she’s quite a snob.”
Marcel Proust’s mother was as handsome in person as in her portrait by Anaïs Beauvais: At once forbidding and sensual, with a high forehead, a round face, dark eyes, and a steely gaze that was softened somewhat by a generous chest that a muslin collar only partly concealed. Her gentle voice seemed at odds with the cool elegance she emanated.
“I’ve come to welcome you. I believe you also have a son who is quite dependent on his mother. Nathan, if I’m not mistaken?”
Rebecca blushed like an adolescent. How could she know that? Seeing the younger woman’s embarrassment, Jeanne Proust began to laugh:
“Rest assured; just because we are dead doesn’t mean we can read other people’s thoughts. I was just outside. I overheard your conversation.”
Rebecca felt like a foreigner in a strange land. Intimidated, she wondered if she should shake hands, greet her with a kiss on the cheek, on both cheeks, merely say hello, start a conversation, wait for a verbal cue? She had become accustomed to Louise Cohen and Minnie Marx, so cozily maternal, both of them. Jeanne Proust, on the other hand, was clearly a
. Louise broke the uncomfortable silence:
“Jeanne was always worried about Marcel. Much too worried. It made him nervous, the poor child.”
“It was his fragile health, ever since he was born,” retorted Jeanne, exasperated. “That’s why I was on pins and needles every time he became ill: he was such a sickly child. He caught every illness going.”
“You were uneasy long before he was born,” Louise reminded her.
“Why shouldn’t I have been? There was plenty to be anxious about: the war against Prussia, the Commune, the terrible battles, the noise of the bombs and the ruins they left, not to mention the daily hardships we had to endure. I felt frightened and abandoned, far from my parents, despite my frequent visits to them.”
“They lived in Auteuil, am I right?” Rebecca asked. “Like you, wasn’t Marcel very attached to that house?”
Jeanne’s face lit up as she realized Rebecca was a cultivated woman like herself. She would be able to share her most intimate literary moments with her, as well as her boundless admiration for her son’s work.
“Marcel spent many weekends there and came often on vacations,” she was delighted to confirm for her. “He remembered in particular the long, satin curtains in his bedroom that were an empire blue. Also the little sitting room whose shutters were always kept closed to ward off the day’s heat. He wrote about the smell of soap and the ‘garishly bourgeois’ dining room. Marcel loved that house even though he thought it completely tasteless. We had to get rid of it when my uncle died. That was in February, 1897: such a terribly bitter winter that year the great lawn was entirely frozen.”
“It was described in rather more prosaic terms for the purposes of its sale: ‘vast house, 1500 square meters with greenhouses and outbuildings, 121 avenue Mozart, with separate entrance 96 rue La Fontaine,’” recited Rebecca. She was rather proud of herself to have remembered the citation.
If there had been a selection process to remain in Jeanne Proust’s company, Rebecca would have passed with flying colors. So much so that Louise Cohen felt excluded from the conversation and shared her displeasure with the others:
“Apparently you find Marcel Proust much more interesting than Albert Cohen.”
“Not at all.”
“You’re a terrible liar. I’m going to go find Minnie.”
“No! Wait! You were telling me what a mother hen you were to Albert when he was little,” she reminded Louise, hoping to lure her back.
“Oh! That was nothing compared to the bond I had with Marcel,” Jeanne interrupted. “I never dreamed I would be so moved by his birth. We couldn’t have been closer.”
Rebecca turned to Louise to encourage her to join in, but she was already long gone.
“Leave her be,” Jeanne advised. “We’ll see her again later.”
Leading her new friend out of the room, Jeanne Proust wanted to know exactly how familiar Rebecca was with Marcel’s work. Rebecca hesitated before answering, afraid her knowledge would seem insignificant next to Jeanne’s and that she would be asked to leave this strange paradise.
Jeanne had shown her to the winter garden where they settled down in wicker chairs overhung by palm leaves. Everywhere was bougainvillea, oleander, and lemon and orange trees. She was enchanted by it all. Timidly, she framed her answer:
“I have a fair knowledge of his work, but since I arrived here, I think I understand better when your son writes of his separation anxiety. I miss Nathan so much that I can identify with Marcel’s despair when you left Venice: everything lost its glow. The water in the canals was suddenly no more than hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The palaces he had admired so greatly before seemed to him just uninteresting piles of marble. Your leaving distorted his whole vision of the world.”
“For me, too,” said Jeanne Proust. “I was beside myself to think of him all alone. It was around that time that he wrote me these admirable lines: ‘When two people like us are so intimately connected, it makes no difference how close together or far apart we may be; we are ever in close communication and always we remain at each other’s side.’ Isn’t that magnificent?”
“That reminds me of his description of the ‘Young Ladies of the Telephone’ in the
, I think. He’s speaking to his grandmother—he in Doncières, she in Paris—when he brings up these ‘Guardian Angels,’ the ‘All Powerful by whose intervention the absent rise up at our side, without our being permitted to set eyes on them.’”
Delighted by this reader emeritus, Jeanne pulled a packet of letters from her pocket and handed them to Rebecca, who began to finger through what was an enormous stack of correspondence. Jeanne had insisted that Marcel write her about every last detail of his life, beginning with simple housekeeping. She wanted to stay informed of all his affairs. What needed to be “washed, wiped, inspected, resoled, labeled, darned, embroidered, mended, from collars to buttonholes?” Jeanne wanted to be part of his intimate rituals: what time did he get up and what time did he wash? Had he worked? How long? Did he go out? With whom? She ended one of her letters with this advice: “Be very careful when you are cooking and heating in the evening, I worry about you every night.”
“‘Be very careful?’ You sound like you’re addressing a child.”
“Marcel was entirely unsuited to practicalities,” Jeanne replied defensively.
“Weren’t you a bit nosy?” Rebecca wondered out loud, still rifling through the letters. “You left nothing to chance. Even when he was fulfilling his military service, you asked him to date each of his letters and to inform you of his schedule, hour by hour. You seem rather obsessed about his use of time. I wonder if that explains why he finally inverted his biological clock to write at night and sleep during the day?”
“I can’t say. We had the same personality, the same jealousy, the same possessiveness and worry. He led a very disordered life but he still needed to kiss me goodnight in order to sleep.”
“It’s not so uncommon as you think,” interrupted Louise Cohen, who had found them again.
“Oh! Louise!” Rebecca was startled by every “apparition” of these silently moving women.
“Albert wrote about my bedtime kisses and stories, too. There’s not a mother in the world who doesn’t kiss her child goodnight,” Louise remarked.
“Well, it was different for me,” Jeanne Proust assured her. “It pained me terribly to leave him. Every night before he fell asleep, while he tossed and turned in his bed, I would wait stock-still in the hallway between our bedrooms, listening to his every breath.”
“‘For a long time I used to go to bed early,’” Rebecca said, reciting from memory the famous first line of
Remembrance of Things Past
. “His night fears must have been very powerful since he begins the novel with them.”
“He described that same scene on five different occasions in his books,” Jeanne revealed proudly.
“The kiss scene is mentioned five times?”
Jeanne was emphatic in her response:
“In each version, Marcel describes the intolerable absence of his mother. She abandons him in his room to a night that seems endless. If she is in the house entertaining guests, he waits in vain for her to return. If she is going out for the evening, she leaves him alone. That she had a life of her own was unbearable.”