In Search of a Great Modernist

Do Proust's final days illuminate his novel?

Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris, by Richard Davenport-Hines, Bloomsbury, $24.95

So much has been written about Marcel Proust since his death 80-odd years ago (in November 1922) that it takes a certain courage to produce yet another book on him. Proust died before the full publication of À la recherche du temps perdu (the last volume appeared in 1927), but he had already attained quasi-legendary status as a writer. In the years following his death, a number of his friends and admirers published personal reminiscences about him. These memoirs put in place the chief elements of the legend that still dominates many readers’ views of the man and his work: his asthma, his cork-lined room, his outings to the Ritz in the middle of the night, his manias and foibles, all in the service of the Great Novel he was writing to his last day. Decades later, George D. Painter’s masterly two-volume biography brought together every possibly relevant fact of Proust’s life, gleaned from his correspondence as well as from hundreds of published sources, in order to show how each one, transformed, figured in his novel. “What do they know of À la recherche, who only À la recherche know?” Painter asked rhetorically in his preface. To really know the novel, he maintained, one had to know the details of the author’s life and the real-life “models” of his major characters.

When I read Painter’s rhetorical question as a graduate student in the 1960s, it struck me as totally wrong-headed. Those were the days of the New Criticism in the United States and structuralism in France, when only the text mattered and the biographical fallacy was to be avoided like the plague. Things have considerably mellowed since then, and today we live in a great democracy of approaches to literature, and to Proust. A few years ago, Alain de Botton’s witty yet erudite “advice book,” How Proust Can Change Your Life, demonstrated that it was possible to write something new, with appeal to both specialists and general readers, on this venerated author and his work.

Proust at the Majestic attempts a similar feat. Richard Davenport-Hines, a British author and journalist, has gone back to all the reminiscences by Proust’s friends, as well as to other contemporary sources and to Painter’s biography, producing a highly readable, occasionally gossipy account of Proust’s life and last days; he also gives a personal interpretation of the major themes of À la recherche, most importantly that of homosexuality. According to Davenport-Hines, the Baron de Charlus is the true hero of the novel, and “Charlusiens” are its main concern. J. E. Rivers already argued in his 1980 Proust and the Art of Love (to which Davenport-Hines refers once, in passing—he generally ignores all the recent critical literature on Proust) that the homosexual theme was central to the aesthetic of Proust’s novel. Davenport-Hines, less focused on aesthetics than on personal and social history, emphasizes the pathbreaking role of the famous encounter between Charlus and Jupien, followed by the disquisition on the “race of Aunts” in the opening section of Sodome et Gomorrhe, which first appeared in 1921. “Sodome et Gomorrhe made sub­sequent allusions to homosexuality easier in France and elsewhere,” Davenport-­­Hines writes, crediting Proust with great courage in approaching this theme as, and when, he did.

Davenport-Hines also admires the transgressive class implications of the homosexual theme, since in À la recherche dukes can fall in love with footmen or elevator boys, just as Proust himself fell in love with his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli. Like Painter, Davenport-Hines has a tendency to bring back all aspects of the novel to Proust’s own life and temperament. He expresses contempt for the “reductive frivolity” of Proust’s early English admirer Sydney Schiff, who insisted on “reading Temps perdu through the personality of its creator.” But Davenport-Hines’s own reading of the novel often falls into the same trap, or the same reduction. It is hard to resist hero worship (what Proust called “idolatry”) when writing about the author of À la recherche, and Davenport-Hines indulges in it quite a lot, despite his express condemnation of it.

And the Majestic? Ah, yes, on May 18, 1922, six months before Proust’s death, the wealthy Anglo-Jewish aesthete Sydney Schiff and his wife Violet gave a party at the Hotel Majestic, following the first night of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Renard, performed by the Ballets Russes. Serge Diaghilev, the Ballets’ legendary director, was in attendance, as were a few dozen members of the Parisian beau monde and various English visitors. But the guests of honor at the feast were the four great modernists Stravinsky, Picasso, Proust, and Joyce, who mostly succeeded in getting on each others’ nerves. This was especially true of Proust and Joyce, comically mismatched. The story of this failed encounter between the two greatest novelists of the century (each man hastening to assure the other that he had not read his work!) has often been told, both by guests who were present and later by biographers. Davenport-Hines retells it in amusing detail in his opening chapter. After that, he takes a leap back and devotes several chapters to Proust’s life and work, then refocuses again on 1922 and on Proust’s last days. The party at the Majestic functions as a peg on which to hang the rest of the book—clever, but a bit clunky. (In England, the book is titled A Night at the Majestic, free of the overblown American subtitle.)

The chapter from which I learned the most is devoted to Proust’s relations with the Schiffs, whom he first met in 1919. Sydney Schiff was a writer as well as a patron of the arts, and Proust was sufficiently fond of him and his work to recommend his novels to his own publisher, Gallimard, who had them translated. This is not mentioned by Davenport-Hines, who treats Schiff with palpable antipathy (the information comes from Jean-Yves Tadié’s biography). Schiff worshiped Proust and his work, a fact that Davenport-Hines finds distasteful, remarking that when Schiff sent copies of Proust’s books to a friend in China, he behaved “like a huckster handing out free samples.” Despite the author’s animus against him, Schiff emerges in this chapter as an interesting if minor figure in interwar English literary and cultural life (he died in 1944, his wife in 1962).

Finally, does one need to know “more than À la recherche” in order to know Proust? Proust’s own view was that a great book is far more worth knowing than the imperfect human being who produced it—indeed, that an author is far better known in and through works than in life. If you must choose, he would have said, always go for the book, not for the man or woman at the Ritz—or at the Majestic.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is the Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author of Crises of Memory and the Second World War.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up