Proust: The Race Against Death

Shortly after midnight on May 18, 1922, in a private dining room at the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, a glittering group of writers, artists, musicians, and patrons of the arts gathered to celebrate the first public performance of Stravinsky’s burlesque ballet Renard, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. The ballet had been performed that evening at the Paris Opéra, to a puzzled but polite audience, by the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, who also stage-managed the supper party. Nine years had passed since the riotous première of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. To judge by the reviews of Renard quoted by Richard Davenport-Hines, audiences were now more likely to be intrigued than offended by Modernist experiments. According to the New York Herald‘s critic, M. Stravinsky “is going through a process of evolution which, however, is not likely to be followed easily by the public.”

Even this muted acknowledgment of creative autonomy would have been unusual a decade before. Incomprehensibility was no longer universally deemed an artistic defect. Stravinsky and the other star guests at the Hôtel Majestic that evening in 1922—Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust—enjoyed the admiration of a small, passionate minority who read the latest volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu on the Métro and reveled in the obscurity that seemed to be the mark of genius. They attended Picasso’s exhibitions and Albert Einstein’s lectures on relativity (held in Paris in March and April that year), expecting to be pleasantly baffled.

No doubt this was evidence of intellectual curiosity, but there was also an element of snobbery. Like the luxurious Hôtel Majestic, Proust’s sentences and Einstein’s equations had the charm of exclusivity. Two of Proust’s contemporaries, quoted by Davenport-Hines, significantly likened Proust’s syntactical complexities to what were then exclusive, upper-class pursuits. Violet Hunt found that Proust “backed his sentences in and out of garages like a first-class motorist.” E.M. Forster sniffily compared the experience of negotiating Proust’s expansive, flowery phrases to a shooting expedition: “Three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder, as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs.”

The exclusive supper party at the Majestic was the idea of an English couple, Violet and Sydney Schiff, who paid for the whole event. While Violet amused herself with matchmaking, Sydney, whose novels in the Modernist style are now quite forgotten, seems to have spent much of his time ingratiating himself with prominent members of the avant-garde. He was particularly infatuated with Marcel Proust. “He tried to insinuate his way into every corner of Proust’s most intimate existence,” says Davenport-Hines. He pestered him with invitations and sent him strangely tactless and flirtatious letters. On one occasion, he insisted on knowing where Proust’s maid bought his writing paper: “I would love to have the same as yours in the …

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