On 18 May 1922, at the luxurious Majestic hotel in the Avenue Kléber in Paris, Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky and Diaghilev sat down to dinner together for the first and last time. They had been gathered there by the British writer Sydney Schiff and his wife Violet, ostensibly to mark the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet Le Renard, performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. But, as Richard Davenport-Hines reveals in his new book, A Night at the Majestic, the gathering was much more than an "after party" - it came to represent the high point of European Modernism, and one of Paris's defining moments as a cultural capital.
Davenport-Hines uses the party to "bookend" his study of the evening's guest of honour, Marcel Proust, and his seven-volume collection of novels, A la recherche du temps perdu: "The party was exactly six months before the death of Proust, and both the prelude and the sequel to the party really make sense of the whole of Proust's life and his creative effort."
The author claims to have experienced his own "Proustian moment" as he worked on the book. "I realised when I finished the book that I'd been told about this party more than 30 years ago by a friend of the hostess. But I'd forgotten that I knew about it when I started to write the book. It only really came back to me at the end when I'd finished... It was the first thing anyone ever told me about Proust."
The party is a gem of cultural history, and Davenport-Hines relishes every trivial detail. The Majestic was second choice as a venue; the Ritz had been discounted because it did not allow music to be played after 12.30am. The menu was chosen to appeal to both the Russian exiles in attendance - caviar and Russian hors d'oeuvres - and to the Proustians within the group, with dishes plucked straight from the pages of his novels - asparagus, boeuf en gelée, almond cake and coffee, and pistachio ice cream.
The Schiffs might have been the hosts, but Diaghilev was the master of ceremonies. He "netted" Stravinsky and Picasso, who were both involved with the Ballets Russes, but the Schiffs really wanted the two great modernist novelists, James Joyce and Proust, both of whom were notoriously flaky when it came to social engagements. "They were clearly on tenterhooks to see if either of them turned up. Sydney Schiff, who was always inclined to drink too much champagne when he was nervous, got rather sozzled just through being so keyed up," explains Davenport-Hines, who labels the Schiffs as "the first celebrity stalkers".
James Joyce eventually rolled through the doors, visibly intoxicated and paralysed with nerves, as the diners were drinking coffee. The Schiffs were delighted, but the evening wasn't complete until 2.30am, when "a small dapper figure ... clad in exquisite black with white kid gloves ... entered with an insinuating air". Marcel Proust had arrived.
His attendance was a coup. Proust, one-time social butterfly, known as "Proust of the Ritz", became a recluse in his final years, too fond of his sickbed-cum-writing desk to leave his apartment. This party was his first outing for a fortnight; he had been too ill to socialise since scorching his throat with a hefty dose of adrenalin, taken, ironically, to give him strength for dinner with the Schiffs.
The book charts Proust's increasingly pathological approach to socialising. On New Year's Eve 1921, he built up to the evening's celebrations with typically hysterical panache. "From fear of being unable otherwise to come to you, I have taken drugs in such profusion that it will be a man half-aphasic and especially wobbly on his legs, from vertigo, that you behold," he wrote in advance to the host. He also asked his maid Céleste to call ahead 10 times to ensure that he was greeted with "a cup of scalding tea", and that there were no draughts at the venue. In the last year of his life, this hypochondria became so extreme that he requested his morning post to be steamed in disinfectant. That said, his misgivings were occasionally proved correct. One particular evening at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a restaurant that was popular with artists, descended into a scuffle in which he narrowly avoided being struck by an ice bucket and a roast chicken.
The inveterate social climber was no doubt tempted out of his bed by the stellar company on the menu at the Majestic. Diaghilev, "the most wonderful Falstaffian character", impressed the author. "He's absolutely fascinated, rather voyeuristically, by Diaghilev's turbulence in his emotional life, his desperate, passionate love for sometimes very inappropriate young men, for which he is willing to risk artistic success," writes Davenport-Hines.
As for Picasso: "Although one mustn't read too much into this, Proust was quite attracted to stocky, not very tall, southern-looking men. The great love of his life [his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli] looked like a plumper version of Picasso," gossips the author. "So Proust is definitely pro-Picasso, though I don't suppose Picasso is pro-anyone very much except Picasso."
It is, says Davenport-Hines, Proust's conversations with Stravinsky and Joyce that provide "an example of how huge artistic egos are and how clumsily and childishly they can clash".
Proust's conversation with Stravinsky had a less-than-auspicious start. Princesse Violette Murat flounced out of the party, looking daggers at Proust as he arrived. Gossip about her meanness was rife, and she was mortally offended by rumours that one of Proust's particularly parsimonious characters was based on her. ("At the time, socially, in France everyone was trying to work out who were the keys to each character," explains Davenport-Hines, who devotes much of his book to doing the same.) This snub flustered the out-of-practice socialite Proust and he praised Stravinsky clumsily, by talking about his admiration for Beethoven. "Stravinsky is sitting there, all keyed-up, waiting for the first-night reviews of his ballet to come in, so having to talk about Beethoven seems to him immensely tactless."
The meeting of the two modernist minds was by far the most eagerly anticipated of the evening and, as a result, there are varying accounts of the exchange between Proust and Joyce. "Conversation with Joyce," writes Davenport-Hines, "was often difficult." As one might expect from the author of Ulysses, it was "dislocated, muddled and absurd". Various accounts have the two authors claiming not to have read each other's works, discussing their illnesses, or arguing over acquaintances. Davenport-Hines quotes Joyce as saying, "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. The situation was impossible."
Davenport-Hines suggests that Joyce's griping was down to jealousy. "In Paris and London at that time, critics were saying, 'Proust is our greatest living novelist. The only rival he's got is James Joyce'. Being second-best for Joyce is absolutely intolerable and it's aggravated by the fact that the Schiffs are obsessed with Proust and must have made it very clear to Joyce that Proust was number one," says the author.
The frosty encounter got worse before it got better. Joyce forced himself into Proust's taxi, opened the window and lit a cigarette - anathema to the asthmatic and sickly French author. "I wish I'd been there when Schiff snatched away Joyce's cigarette and slammed the window shut!" writes Davenport-Hines. The meeting ended abruptly when Proust asked his taxi to take Joyce home, rather than inviting him in.
Six months to the day after the night at the Majestic, Proust died, from "overwork, self-neglect and hunger". His funeral was the talk of the town, from taxi-drivers to barmen, and became the next occasion on which the dinner guests were reassembled. Joyce, Diaghilev, Mayakovsky and Cocteau were among the mourners lining the streets. "He sacrificed his life in order to have clean proofs. It's the absolute self-abnegation of the man to his art and it was seen as that by everyone," writes Davenport-Hines.
Despite the artistic backbiting and amusing gossip of the party, Davenport-Hines sees it as a seminal moment in world culture. "Paris in the 1920s is the centre, not just of European culture but of Western civilisation. It is the place where the daily exchange of ideas between creative people, the real small talk of creative ideas, actually matters more than anything that is going on artistically anywhere else in the world for decades."
Joyce moved to Paris in 1920, calling it "the last of the human cities". As Davenport-Hines says: "It's a place where Stravinsky, Picasso, Diaghilev and Joyce have chosen to live. They could be anywhere but Paris is absolutely the place for them to be because it's richer in its cultural life and it's more full of ideas than anywhere else." He sums up the zeitgeist that brought these five artistic giants together perfectly with a quote from Lord Derwent, a Yorkshireman who settled in Paris in the 1920s. For him, Paris in 1922 was "a real meeting ground of those curious of what Europe meeting the World over a gin-fizz might produce".
A Night at the Majestic: Proust & the Great Modernist Dinner Party of 1922, by Richard Davenport-Hines, is published on 9 February by Faber and Faber, £14.99
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies