Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Parisby Richard Davenport-Hines
A vivid portrait of the early impact of In Search of Lost Timeand of the last months of Proust in a city where he had become an unlikely star.
On a May evening in 1922, the English arts lovers Violet and Sydney Schiff convened a grand dinner at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, following the premiere of a Stravinsky ballet. In addition to guests of/b>/i>
A vivid portrait of the early impact of In Search of Lost Timeand of the last months of Proust in a city where he had become an unlikely star.
On a May evening in 1922, the English arts lovers Violet and Sydney Schiff convened a grand dinner at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, following the premiere of a Stravinsky ballet. In addition to guests of honor Stravinsky and Diaghilev, the dinner was attended by Picasso, James Joyce, and finally, arriving around 2:30 in the morning, one more artist at the peak of his fame: Marcel Proust. Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth and most shocking volume of Proust's monumental work In Search of Lost Time, had just appeared, transfixing readers with its finely detailed observations on themes of Jewishness and anti-Semitism, the interplay across social classes, and all manner of sexual expression. The book's eccentric, ailing author had become a celebrity to French and English-language readers alike, and his presence at the dinner was all the more unusual since Proust rarely went out. In fact, he would be dead only six months later.
Acclaimed historian and biographer Davenport-Hines takes the dinner at the Majestic as the leaping-off point for an examination of Proust's last days, and the enormous reaction his novel garnered from its first years of publication. Using accounts by Proust's contemporaries, including other modernist stars, Proust's dazzled readers, and wealthy patrons such as the Schiffs, Davenport-Hines illuminates the Paris of the author's last days.
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Proust at the MajesticThe Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris
By RICHARD DAVENPORT-HINES
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2006 Richard Davenport-Hines
All right reserved.
Chapter One18 May 1922
It is a May evening in Paris in 1922. After several dismal, wet weeks the weather has turned warm and sunny. 'All the signs of real spring are here,' according to an Englishman in Paris. 'The cafe terraces are crowded, the fountains of La Place de la Concorde are spurting their columns of scintillating water exuberantly into the air, and the taxi-men have become more than usually reckless and even more profane to one another when they just miss a collision by inches.'
A supper party is being held in a private dining room at the Majestic, an hotel de luxe in Avenue Kleber, one of the twelve avenues named after Napoleon's generals which radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe. A similar hotel to the Majestic had been described in a recent novel that was the talk of Paris at the time: its guests likened to the audience in a theatre, who find themselves enlisted as a cast of extras, adding colour and diversity to the spectacle in which they are caught up, 'as if the spectator's own life were unfolding amidst the sumptuousness of a stage-set'. Certainly, three years earlier, the Hotel Majestic had been the stage for an international spectacle when itwas taken over by the British delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference. There had been a perpetual stir of journalists hustling after stories and of secretaries scurrying about with papers. Diplomats from a score of countries had loitered in its spacious lobby. Vigilant-looking businessmen had tried to pull strings or jockey for advantages. So intense were the intrigues that British servants had temporarily replaced the regular hotel staff so as to reduce the risk of leaks and espionage. Augustus John and Sir William Orpen, the official painters to the British delegation during the Conference, stayed at the Majestic, and recorded the sumptuous scenes there. 'The Hotel Majestic is a very lively place,' Sir Maurice Hankey, the Secretary of the British delegation, told his wife. 'All the most beautiful and well-dressed society ladies appear to have been brought over by the various Departments. I do not know how they do their work but in the evening they dance and sing and play bridge!' The ostentation of the evening parties shocked some British officials. 'The dance at the Majestic last night was an amazing affair - a most cosmopolitan crowd - the last touch was put on it when Lord Wimborne arrived with a crowd of wonderful ladies,' one member of the British delegation noted in 1919. 'People rather resent this invasion of the Majestic on Saturday nights, & steps are being taken to put a stop to it, otherwise the thing will become a scandal.'
This seething diplomatic intrigue was a phase of the Majestic's history which passed as quickly as French enthusiasm for President Woodrow Wilson, whose arrival in Paris in 1919 - a messenger of peace, supported by all the wealth of America - caused the greatest excitement since the state visit of Tsar Nicholas of Russia in 1896. The over-worked, high-minded British civil servants had to endure the Majestic's shocking pleasures for only six months before the hotel was restored to its usual guests to whom display, luxury and wonderful ladies never seemed scandalous.
The hosts of this supper party on 18 May 1922 are just such guests: a rich, cultivated and cosmopolitan English couple, Violet and Sydney Schiff. They have chosen to hold their party in the Majestic because the management of the Ritz would not permit music to be played after 12.30 at night: the Majestic, they know, vies in its splendours, comforts and cuisine with the Ritz. A vivid description of the Schiffs has been left by the novelist Stella Benson. 'Pretty elderly,' she wrote of Sydney Schiff in 1925, 'a jew [sic], with twisted yellow white moustache like an ex-colonel - very deaf but not irritable - very very attentive to everything that he hears - rather argumentative for the sake of arguing - too logical to hold a human view in argument. He has a wife, a placid and possibly stupid creature.' Later, in 1928, when Benson was entertained with Aldous Huxley by the Schiffs at the Gargoyle Club in London, Schiff seemed 'very human and eager, as ever - he makes almost a parade of being anti-art and pro-man in all things, and he loves youth and all modern symptoms.' Wyndham Lewis, who was first a protege and then a tormentor of Sydney Schiff, showed less generosity a year or two later. He depicted Schiff as presenting the 'earnest mask of a beardless, but military-moustachioed, spectacled Dr Freud', walking with 'an alert dandified energetic shuffle', and behaving towards others with 'solemn, loyal-and-affectionate unction.' Violet Schiff, so Stella Benson found, was 'rather frosty to women, but she is evidently attractive to men since her husband so volubly adores her that she herself, without embarrassment or false humility, embroiders on his theme - herself.' Others were more affectionate about Violet Schiff. 'Her Jewish origins showed in her Biblical profile. The line of her hair rolled back from her brow, the high cheekbones and straight, strongly- bridged nose, and the sensitive modelling of the lips and chin suggested the feminine equivalent of some beautiful statue of Moses,' according to one of her younger admirers, Julian Fane. 'She liked,' he recalled, 'to discuss character and motive by the hour. The point of her talk was not only her relish in it, her wit, imagination, subtlety, the clarity of her analyses, and the aptness of her instances, but also its intimacy. She could draw references to herself and whoever she was with, and to general laws and truths, from the strangest anecdote.'
The 'great point in the Schiffs' favour,' according to their friend T. S. Eliot, was their capacity when entertaining 'of bringing very diverse people together and making them combine well'. Sydney Schiff prided himself on being a 'resourceful, dextrous and untiring host' who 'ordered and arranged everything in a handsome and convenient way'. His hospitality always seemed effortless and polished because he had the money to pay for the staff to proffer expert advice, anticipate his needs and deflect stressful worries. This Majestic evening was particularly unforgettable because Schiff had proposed to the impresario Serge Diaghilev to pay for a party at which some forty guests were invited to celebrate the first public performance of Stravinsky's burlesque ballet Le Renard, performed by Diaghilev's company, the Ballets Russes, and had then delegated its arrangements to the Russian. Diaghilev could muster for his productions all the greatest talents (both emigre and French) available in Paris, and had spared no pains to promote the success of the Paris Opera evening. He had even arranged for Le Figaro to publish on its front page that morning 'Une lettre de Stravinski a Tchaikovski', in which the composer offered a creative manifesto for Russian music. He was equally meticulous about the sequel: the supper-party was matchless, Schiff acknowledged, precisely because Diaghilev stage-managed the proceedings as if he was directing one of his own ballets.
Le Renard lasted twenty minutes, required four dancers, four singers and fourteen musicians, and was premiered that evening as the culmination of a programme of Schumann's The Carnival, Tchaikovsky's Caisse-Noisette (The Nutcracker) and Le Mariage de la Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty), and Borodin's Les Danses de Prince Igor. The playfulness of Le Renard - with its mischievous, acrobatic dancing and simple yet challenging music - puzzled and even displeased those members of the audience who took their pleasures seriously, or wanted their Arts easily docketed and categorised. 'The first performance of the Ballets Russes in the season just opened at the Paris Opera was of peculiar interest, because it will certainly give rise to polemics,' reported the Paris edition of the New York Herald. Although 'the greater part of its program was splendid', Stravinsky's quest for musical innovation was not judged enjoyable. 'He is going through a process of evolution which, however, is not likely to be followed easily by the public. For music must not be turned away from its real purpose, which is to please and charm the ear, and the ear is offended by a medley of tonalities, which form what is termed polytonal music. It seems like the noises in cadence made by negroes and not a work inspired by the heart to appeal to the heart. This first experiment by a musician of M. Stravinsky's rank was received politely. It was just as well, however, that the applause of his friends was not enthusiastic enough to provoke a counter-demonstration.' The distinguished composer and conductor Andre Messager had a similar reaction. He praised the earlier parts of the Ballets Russes programme on 18 May but felt 'truly embarrassed to speak of Stravinsky's Renard after a single audition'. It seemed to Messager 'a piece of buffoonery' with 'extremely odd' orchestral effects. 'Unfortunately, just as it's impossible to hear the singers, it is equally difficult to follow a comic action that only lived in the detail. Nevertheless, the ensemble is amusing and the music has ingenious novelty.' These ambivalent notices were not published in time to irritate Stravinsky or disappoint Diaghilev at the Majestic.
The audience at the premiere of Le Renard were jolted and provoked by some of Stravinsky's surprise effects; but the Schiffs' first-night party afterwards was even more memorable with its glittering guest-list. 'Kind Mr Schiff gave a supper-party in honour of Diaghileff after the first night of some ballet or other,' recalled the art critic Clive Bell, one of the few Englishmen present at the Majestic party. 'He invited forty or fifty guests, members of the ballet and friends of the ballet, painters, writers, dress-makers and ladies of fashion; but that on which he had set his heart was to assemble at his hospitable board - in an upper room at the Majestic - the four living men he most admired: Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce and Proust.' The Schiffs' creative heroes - the painter, the composer and the novelists who were the foremost leaders of the Modernist movement - were acutely conscious of each other, and full of mutual curiosity and respect; but they cared supremely for their own ideas and for the progress of their own work. Always susceptible to well-informed admiration, they enjoyed being feted at parties where the other guests' prestige felt like an apt tribute to their own importance. Indeed in 1922 they were reckoned by intelligent Parisians to be more important than politicians or manufacturers. Diaghilev's first productions of Stravinsky's ballets, the opening of Picasso's shows in Rue de la Boetie, the week when Ulysses was published, the appearance of successive volumes of Proust's long novel, were dominant events in the city. This was despite the fact that the avant-garde movement's efforts were not directed at the unhappy majority whose lives were so strained by work and responsibilities that they only wanted Art to provide an anodyne, effortless form of escapist entertainment. Instead, Modernism's audience was the privileged minority whose circumstances enabled them to approach Art with an intelligent concentrated consciousness.
The work of the Schiffs' guests of honour impedes, confuses and distorts the readers' or viewers' perceptions: they set out to bewilder, challenge and enhance. It was for this reason that they were often reckoned as revolutionaries: the uproar which greeted the first performance by the Ballets Russes of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) in 1913 was a furious, fearful reaction against a perceived New Terror in the arts and politics. Yet in truth the consecrated leaders of Modernism entertained by the Schiffs were neither Decadents nor Nihilists: they detested the bogus feelings, specious opinions and general decrepitude of twentieth-century culture; they despised mediocre writers and artists who depended for their effects on conjuring tricks and cheap magic; they did not work in a state of self-induced or self-admiring delirium. Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Picasso and their confreres were not hell-bent on demolition, but worked instead at the renovation and strengthening of the artistic glories of the distant past - without, however, the mawkish idealism that produced the pastiche medievalism of the Victorians. They developed new ways to exploit very old sources. Two of the chief inspirations for Picasso's first and greatest Cubist painting, Les demoiselles d'Avignon, were exhibitions in Paris of prehistoric Iberian sculpture and of primitive African masks. Stravinsky reworked the ancient rites and barbaric dances of old Russia when he composed Le sacre du printemps. Of the two most important English-language publications of 1922, Joyce reworked Homer's Odyssey to create Ulysses; and when T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land he drew on the anthropology of vegetation ceremonies, the Grail Legend, Ezekiel, Marvell, Dante, Ovid, St Augustine, Jacobean playwrights and the Cumaean Sibyl.
In the spring of 1922 Modernism was about fifteen years old, and at its apogee. It had, arguably, been inaugurated in 1906-7 when Picasso began painting Les demoiselles d'Avignon. It had entered a more established phase in 1910 with the triumphantly successful first performance of Stravinsky's 45-minute-long ballet L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird) by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera, and with the opening in London of the Post-Impressionist art show at the Grafton Galleries. It was in 1910, too, that Marinetti began bombarding Europe with his loud, violent lectures on Futurism (one of which was delivered in the Schiffs' London drawing-room). There were other dates and incidents that defined the epoch: the riotous Paris premiere of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps in 1913; the publication that same year of the first volume of Proust's great sequence of novels collectively entitled A la recherche du temps perdu; the opening of the Armory art show in New York City later in 1913; the debut of Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock in 1915; and in 1922 the publication of Ulysses and of The Waste Land.
Diaghilev was both the guest of honour and the master of ceremonies during this night at the Majestic. He was always a dominant figure at the first-night celebrations after his productions. 'His linen was immaculate, but his evening clothes sometimes showed signs of wear', his friend Cyril Beaumont recalled. 'He had a suave address, not unlike the bedside manner of a fashionable physician. His voice had a soft, caressing tone, infinitely seductive. His "mon cher ami", accompanied by an affectionate touch of his hand on your wrist or forearm, was irresistible. On the other hand, when cross, he could be brutally hurtful and arrogant, and no one could snub with more biting sarcasm. He always dressed his hair with a brilliantine perfumed with almond blossom.' Bronislava Nijinska, who had choreographed Le Renard, has also given a vivid account of Diaghilev's appearance. 'He was broad-chested and had a big, almost square head, slightly flabby cheeks, and a full lower lip. In his big black eyes there was always a look of sadness, even when he smiled. The expression on his face was at once menacing and attractive - like a bulldog's.' The Schiffs' friend Osbert Sitwell, too, thought Diaghilev resembled a hybrid animal: as tall and burly as a bear, but with a badger's stripe of white in his black hair. When preoccupied, Sitwell continued, Diaghilev's massive head had an 'air of solemn pathos and listless fatality; but this was quickly banished by the intense energy of his eyes, as they came to life again, and as he gave his very charming smile.'
Excerpted from Proust at the Majestic by RICHARD DAVENPORT-HINES Copyright © 2006 by Richard Davenport-Hines. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Richard Davenport-Hines is an author and journalist who lives in London. His books include The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, and a major biography of Auden. A recipient of the Wolfson Prize for History and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he writes for the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sunday Times, and the Independent
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