Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 26, 2010

Swann and Dreyfus

Charles Haas

Trolling through a French wiki brought me this bit of info about one of Proust’s models for Charles Swann:

Charles Haas, « Merveilleux d’intuition, de finesse et d’intelligence » (Boni de Castellane), avait assez de fortune pour n’avoir pas besoin de gagner sa vie, même s’il ajoute : « Timide parce que juif, il était le seul de sa race qui fût pauvre, ami de toutes les femmes, choyé dans les salons, prisé des hommes de valeur. Il appartenait à cette catégorie d’oisifs spirituels et inutiles qui étaient comme un luxe dans la société d’alors et dont le principal mérite consistait à potiner, avant le dîner, au “Jockey” ou chez la duchesse de la Trémoille. Si son absence d’occupation n’avait pas été un principe, son intelligence aurait justifié pour lui toutes les ambitions. »

Charles Haas fréquentait les salons littéraires, tel celui de la comtesse Robert de Fitz-James ou celui de Madame Émile Straus, les grandes ventes publiques, le foyer de la Comédie-française et les ateliers de peinture, en particulier celui de Degas, qu’il avait connu chez Mme Hortense Howland.


Le Cercle de la Rue Royale

I love that the wiki reproduced a painting by James Tissot, where Haas is depicted standing at the far right. Another note of interest: Haas was one of Sarah Bernhardt’s lovers.


Here’s my mediocre translation of the wiki text:

Charles Haas, “marvelously endowed with intuition, finesse and intelligence” (Boni de Castellane), had a fortune large enough to save him from having to earn a living.  de Castellane adds, “Shy due to his Jewish heritage, he was the only one of his race (all poor) who was a friend to all women, was cherished in the salons, and was appreciated by men of good taste.  He gave to this category of the spiritually and uselessly idle that were like a luxury in the society of those days, and of whom the main value consisted of being able to gossip, before dinner, at the Club Jockey or at the Duchess of Trémoille’s home.  His lack of a job didn’t spur him to try harder; rather, his intelligence was justification enough for all his ambitions.”

Charles Haas was a regular at literary salons, especially those of the Countess Robert de Fitz-James and Mme Emile Straus, at public auction houses, the lobby of the Comédie-française, at the ateliers of painters, particularly that of Degas, whom he had met at the home of Mme Hortense Howland.

“le seul de sa race qui fût pauvre” threw me. Any readers out there with a better translation?

Anyway, note that Haas’s shyness about his Jewish blood overlapped l’affaire Dreyfus and Zola’s “J’accuse!” Heady times! (BTW, see Jacqueline Rose’s essay in the 10 June 2010 LRB for a great exploration of Zola’s continued relevance, more than 100 years later. Great writing, and dedicated to the late Tony Judt, one of my favorite public intellectuals.)

Source of photos and French text: Dictionnaires et Encyclopédies sur ‘Academic’


  1. “He was the only one of his race who was poor.” So, he was the only poor person there.
    Alors, bonne soirée! 🙂

  2. But, Haas was quite wealthy (see preceding sentence), so I ruled out that particular translation.

  3. Right. I see. Was too focused on the sentence. Couldn´t the term “poor” have another meaning here? Maybe “pathetic”? Hmm, that doesn´t fit to the rest…have to ask my sister, who lived in Paris.

  4. Had an interesting conversation about that translation:) – finally we found that translation: “Shy because Jewish it was the only race that was poor, ….”, what do you think about that?

  5. That makes sense to me, and it’s what I was trying to get at in my mediocre translation. But what a strange thing to believe, that only the Jews were poor. Perhaps the meaning is deeper–the Jews were the only GROUP of people that one could think of as being poor. Ah well, it isn’t the translation that’s difficult, it’s understanding the mindset of the original writer!

  6. One more possible interpretation: that de Castellane contradicts himself (“même s’il ajoute”)!

  7. hmm, interesting interpretation…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: