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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 same way that I would provide myself with the same scent as that of a woman whom I loved. Only in your case it’s a great deal more serious.” His passion had not, however, induced him to read the novel that was written on that paper. Ignoring Proust’s theory that writers and their work are entirely separate, Schiff told him that it was pointless to read a friend’s work when the friend could be visited in person, just as it was futile, according to him, to listen to a gramophone record of a singer who was still alive.

Although the party at the Majestic was held in honor of Diaghilev, the Schiffs’ main purpose was to introduce Marcel Proust to James Joyce, whose Ulysses had been published that February. The Schiffs behaved like zookeepers coaxing two rare and skittish beasts into the same cage and hoping that something magical would come of their brief union—a bon mot, a fascinating discussion, a lasting friendship. The scene was set for one of the great meetings of Modernist minds. The food had already been cleared away when a shabby, drunken man blundered in, sat down next to Sydney Schiff, and, according to the art critic Clive Bell, “remained speechless with his head in his hands and a glass of champagne in front of him.” Later, he was heard to snore. This was the author of Ulysses. Then, between two and three o’clock in the morning, a small, dapper figure wrapped in a fur coat slipped into the dining room. If Clive Bell’s description is accurate, he looked somewhat like a rat: “sleek and dank and plastered.” This was the author of À la recherche du temps perdu.

Joyce and Proust failed to live up to the historic occasion. There was no sparkling conversation and the two writers never met again. This did not prevent gossips and writers of memoirs from inventing the dialogue later on. Davenport-Hines quotes six different versions, the most interestingly boring of which is the version Joyce himself gave to Frank Budgen:

Our talk consisted solely of the word “No.” Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, “No.” Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, “No.” And so on. Of course the situation was impossible.

The ride back in the taxi was slightly more eventful. Joyce lit a cigarette and opened the window. Proust, who hated drafts, chattered continuously, without looking at Joyce. When they reached Proust’s home in the Rue Hamelin, Joyce tried to get himself invited in, but Proust insisted, “Let my taxi take you home.”

There is, therefore, a certain irony in Davenport-Hines’s title. It turns out that very little is known about the party at the Majestic. Unusually for such a notable occasion, the guest list and menu were not published in the newspapers. We know that Picasso wore a red Catalan sash around his head, but not what he said. The almost total lack of information would probably have pleased one of the guests, Ernest Ansermet, conductor of Renard, who once told a New York journalist, “Write in your article: this artist doesn’t have any anecdotes.” The party serves mainly to introduce the eccentric figure of Marcel Proust through other people’s eyes before the story plunges into the privacy of his mind.

This is a splendidly Proustian approach to biography: anecdote and gossip paint a portrait of the subject from several different angles before his real, far stranger idiosyncrasies are revealed. The structure of the book also mirrors the structure of À la recherche du temps perdu. Just as Proust’s narrator writes with a sense of death’s imminence, Davenport-Hines begins his chatty, passionate, and scrupulous account with the event that was “the social climax of the last year of Proust’s life.” Exactly six months after the party at the Majestic, on November 18, 1922, after making some final changes to the death scene of one of his characters, Marcel Proust died of septicemia.

The apartment to which Proust returned after the party at the Majestic was to be his last home. His earlier apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, where he had lived for almost thirteen years, was already one of the legendary sites of literary Paris. Comparing it to his own hectic apartment, Joyce had enviously imagined it as a blessed haven: a “comfortable place at the Étoile, floored with cork, and with cork on the walls to keep it quiet.” The famous cork lining was the best-known feature of an artificial environment entirely devoted to the production of a novel. It begs the question: Why did the hypersensitive Proust expose himself at all to the noise of traffic and neighbors, the “acrid smell” of the maid’s laundry and the pollen of the chestnut trees along the boulevard that exacerbated his asthma? He was rich enough to afford a detached suburban villa. He had a chauffeur and a telephone. With its 280 miles of pneumatic tubes and its army of bicycle messengers, the Paris postal service was efficient enough for the needs of any writer.

In fact, as Davenport-Hines points out, Proust was not averse to neighbors. When he lived on the Boulevard Haussmann, he liked to listen to the sounds of lovemaking that came through the wall, just as he helped to finance a homosexual brothel so that he could secretly observe the antics of its customers. When his maid Céleste asked him how he could watch such things, he replied, “because it could not be made up.” He enjoyed loud and boisterous parties, and he even seemed to relish the constant interruptions of the ineffectively sycophantic Sydney Schiff. The cork lining was part of Proust’s cordon sanitaire (a concept first developed by his father, Dr. Adrien Proust), but it was also part of a filtration system that was designed to admit only those stimuli that Proust deemed necessary for his work.

If Joyce had been allowed to see that “comfortable place,” he would have found not a cosy writer’s lair but a clinical chamber. “The cold was so great,” according to one of Proust’s visitors, “that one felt like a fish being kept fresh.” There was no desire to please the eye. The objects were not ornaments but the apparatus of experiments in progress. Sydney Schiff noticed that a particular object—a jug, a coffee cup, or a half-emptied beer glass that had caught the sun in a particular way—would be left where it was. “Sometimes he insisted on it remaining indefinitely, because he wanted to renew the sensation it had given him.” In À la recherche du temps perdu, these apparently trivial sensations occur only by chance. They bring about the epiphanic moments when the narrator grasps the whole “edifice of memory” and can begin to transform “lost time” into a work of art. In Proust’s apartment, those sensations were continually on tap. The apartment in the Rue Hamelin was a novelist’s laboratory in which involuntary memories could be generated at will.

One of the merits of Davenport-Hines’s account is that it shows the extraordinary degree of deliberation that lay behind almost all of Proust’s activities. He may have suffered from exquisite sensitivity, as he often complained, but he took steps to ensure that that sensitivity never waned. A man who has his walls sound-proofed with cork is inevitably reminded of his sensitivity, and a man who subjects himself to a steady diet of caffeine, opiates, barbiturates, amyl nitrate, and pure adrenalin is unlikely to remain oblivious to the functioning of his brain. The quantity and variety of drugs that went into the writing of À la recherche du temps perdu are probably unparalleled in French literature. Proust urged his critics not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation, but it is probably reasonable to suppose that the vivid, hallucinatory memories that the narrator of his novel enjoys at intervals of several years were more common occurrences for the author, and that they were produced by substances less innocuous than a madeleine dipped in a cup of herbal tea.

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