The High Country

Mr. Joyce, may I introduce M. Proust?

I was entranced to learn, in William Carter's superlative and Proust-sized biography, more about the fabled meeting between the great Frenchman and the great Irishman in 1922, toward, the end of Proust's life. It was on May 15 that Proust set out for the Hotel Majestic to attend a supper in honor of the impressario Serge Diagalev and the dancers of the Ballets Russes. It was a post-performance party, so began at 12:30 a.m., which of course was the perfect time for the nocturnal Proust to bestir himself.

By this time he was seriously ill. He ate little and almost never went out in public. However, the host was Sydney Schiff, an English admirer and a longtime friend who under his pseudonym Stephen Hudson would one day translate the final volume of the Search under the title of Time Regained. In his invitation, Schiff noted that Picasso would be there, but didn't mention the name of James Joyce, whose epochal novel Ulysses had been published in Paris two months before.

Joyce arrived late to the party (though before Proust) and found himself the only or perhaps one of the only men present not to be wearing a tuxedo or tails.

"The Irish author began drinking heavily to hide his embarrassment," as William Carter writes in Marcel Proust: A Life. "Suddenly, the door opened and Proust entered, wearing a fur coat.... Joyce followed the Schiffs to the door and attached himself to Proust for the rest of the evening. Perhaps geniuses attract, or perhaps Joyce, underdressed and slightly drunk, felt more comfortable in the company of a fellow practitioner of his craft.... The creators of Leopold Bloom and Charles Swann had little to say to each other. Nonetheless, there are many variations of [their] meager exchange.... Proust, presumably unimpressed with Joyce, never related the encounter to anyone who recorded it. According to William Carlos Williams, Joyce complained about headaches and his eyes, while Proust bemoaned his poor digestion. But Joyce told Jacques Mercanton that 'Proust would only talk about duchesses, while I was more concerned with their chambermaids.' Violet Schiff remembered that the party broke up when Proust suggested that the Schiffs accompany him to his apartment in a taxi. Joyce, very tipsy, climbed into the taxi with them and promptly opened the window. Schiff, knowing Proust's deadly fear of drafts, immediately closed the window. When they arrived, Proust, in a polite gesture that also served to get rid of Joyce, urged the Irishman to let the taxi take him home. Joyce lingered, eager for more drink and badinage. Proust fled to his apartment, leaving the Schiffs to persuade Joyce to return home on his own.

"Joyce wrote Sylvia Beach in October, saying, with typical Joycean wordplay, that he had 'read the first two volumes recommended by Mr. Schiff of A la Recherche des Ombrelles Perdues par Plusiers Jeunes Filles en Fleurs du côté de chez Swann et Gomorrhée et Co. par Marcelle Proyce and James Joust.' Nothing more is known about his opinion of Proust...."

Hemingway, alas, rates no mention in Carter's biography, nor in the equally hefty biography by Jean-Yves Tadie, now out of print but available from third-party vendors at Amazon.

Warning: don't rely on Amazon links or reader reviews, because the store doesn't distinguish between the Modern Library, Penguin, Yale, and 1920 public domain translations!

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The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

1. Swann's Way | 2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower | 3. The Guermantes Way | 4. Sodom and Gomorrah | 5. The Prisoner | 6. The Fugitive | 7. Finding Time Again

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Posted October 2019. © 2006-2019 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.