A Night at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Proust seems to cast a magic spell over those who write about him. After George Painter's magisterial biography, and Edmund White's exquisite short life, Richard Davenport-Hines has now produced a rich and scintillating piece of literary history with Proust as its biographical centrepiece. Biographer of Auden and author of books about over-indulgence, he is clearly well-equipped to write about Proust, a writer whose ambiguous sexuality and devotion to excess appeared to fuel his creativity. A Night at the Majestic is a veritable box of delights, a celebration of early 20th-century Parisian high life, elegantly-written, full of lively anecdote and astute observation.

On the night of 18 May 1922 (the year of The Waste Land and Ulysses and the completion of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu), some of European art's most notable personalities congregated at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, summoned by the British art connoisseur and playboy Sydney Schiff to celebrate the première of Stravinky's burlesque ballet Le Renard. Schiff's secret purpose, however, was to bring together five great icons of Modernism - Proust, Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky and Diaghilev.

An evening which Painter affords just a few paragraphs, Davenport-Hines expands into a first chapter of almost 50 pages, using the occasion to spotlight Paris's High Bohemia. Here the occasion resembles the opening scene of a grand opera, a great carnival of courtesans, pimps, voyeurs, pederasts, and even a Communist-lesbian Duchess - the satellites of High Art orbiting their chosen geniuses.

Set-piece of the evening was an encounter between Proust and Joyce - chairs were set out for the occasion with the authors' supporters in attendance. The evening was a disaster. Joyce was drunk and uncommunicative; Proust, finding Joyce uncouth, was equally unforthcoming. They talked about anything but literature - truffles, said some, mutual ailments, said others. Joyce later reported, "He wanted to talk about dukes; I wanted to talk about chambermaids." In fact the two had more in common than probably they realised, including an interest in sado-masochism, an obsession with historical detail, and a fascination with epiphanies.

After this glittering opening, the book transforms itself into an essentially thematic biography, tracing the evolution of Proust's consciousness up to the night of the Majestic party and through the following six months preceding his death. Davenport-Hines follows that serpentine trajectory with a sensibility that Proust would have appreciated. "Time is a precious sensual commodity in Proust's universe... An hour is not simply an hour; it is a vase filled with perfumes, with sounds, with projects, with climates." The narrative moves through various aspects of Proust's life - his mother-fixation, his ambiguous sexuality, his Jewishness, his fear of exposure following the Wilde affair. The effect is to see Proust's life as a series of paradoxes mirroring his own fictional representation of the movement of the unconscious mind.

The rest of the book hinges on Proust's relationship with Sydney and Violet Schiff, tastelessness idolators who became ever more demanding, importuning Proust for favours - a letter, a visit, even a manuscript. Sydney, himself an aspiring novelist, clearly battened on Proust hoping thereby to "catch" something of his creative genius. In a lesser way, Joyce also haunts this book, and, in characteristically scrambled passages of Finnegans Wake, seemingly acknowledges his ill-managed Proustian moment.

It was only following the death of his parents that Proust could fully bring himself to write about his own sexual proclivities - hence the most meaningful interpretation of his novel's title - "Making Up for Wasted Time" rather than "In Search of Lost Time", although Proust said the title was intentionally ambiguous. His life was also marked by ambiguity. Some found him malicious and cruel; others applauded his "gentle affectionate irony".

He had an absurdly snobbish attitude towards nobility, but was equally fascinated by the subterranean world of the "invert". "It was exciting for Proust," writes Davenport-Hines, "to present the inverts as a vast secret society that no frontiers of class or nationality could contain... This clandestine world, with its arcane signs and ciphered messages, is populated with venturesome men and women in revolt against society." His novel duly replicates the atmosphere of deceit and contradiction that infused that strange hermetic sexual underworld.

Proust's approaching death - appropriately seclusive - is sympathetically chronicled in the book's finale, especially his fight to complete his novel and achieve immortality before his health finally collapsed. Even on his deathbed, he continued revising Temps Perdu, seeming to record, in re-writing the death of his fictional novelist, Bergotte, his own painful dying.

The final chapter records a ghostly reprise of the Majestic party, with many of the partygoers, including Joyce, turning out for Proust's sumptuous funeral at Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery. It was as if the celebration six months earlier had been little more than a premature wake.

Ford Madox Ford thought that as Molière died on stage, Proust should have died at a ball. With their night at the Majestic the Schiffs almost saw to it that he did.