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When Marcel Proust Met James Joyce

In Craig Brown’s recently released Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, Marilyn Monroe meets Nikita Khrushchev, President Richard Nixon meets Elvis Presley, Salvador Dali meets Sigmund Freud and of course, Marcel Proust meets James Joyce. These are just a few of the delightful and completely true stories in this book, which documents what happens when the famous, the genius, and the notorious bump up against each other, often to hilarious results. One of our favorite essays, which we’ve had the good fortune to be permitted to reprint below, retells the first meeting between Proust and Joyce in 1922 Paris — though accounts vary widely, one thing is for certain: neither had read the work of the other (or neither admitted to it). Click through to read this charming essay, and then be sure to check out the book for even more.

Marcel Proust Gets Rid of James Joyce

Hôtel Majestic, avenue Kléber, Paris
May 19th 1922

Marcel Proust, once so social, is nowadays very picky about going out, preferring to stay in his bedroom. He has developed a particular distaste for exclusive, intimate parties. ‘Nothing amuses me less than what was called, twenty years ago, “select,” ’ he observes.

The British art patrons Sydney and Violet Schiff are obliged to employ stealth to attract him to the dinner party of their dreams, which they are holding in a private room at the Hôtel Majestic, in celebration of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

For some time, they have been plotting to gather the four men they consider the world’s greatest living artists – Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Marcel Proust – together in the same room. Proust is perhaps their greatest catch, being both the most lionised and the most elusive; since the publication of Sodome et Gomorrhe the week before last, he has been the talk of the town. Knowing his aversion to select gatherings, Sydney Schiff does not send him a formal invitation, but craftily slips a reference to it into a letter a few days before: might he perhaps drop by after dinner?

Picasso and Stravinsky arrive in good time. The less dependable James Joyce arrives after coffee, drunk and shabby, swaying from side to side. ‘I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond,’ he admits. He sits to the right of his host, places his head in his hands, and says nothing.

Their fellow guest Clive Bell remembers the entry at 2.30 a.m. of ‘a small, dapper figure clad in exquisite black with white kid gloves … looking for all the world as though he had seen a light in a friend’s window and had just come up on the chance of finding him awake. Physically he did not please me, being altogether too sleek and dank and plastered: his eyes were glorious however.’ This otherwise elegant entrance of Marcel Proust gets off to a bad start when another guest, Princesse Violette Murat, looks daggers at him and flounces out of the party, furious at being depicted as a skinflint in his recent volume.

Proust, flustered by this rebuff, is placed between Igor Stravinsky and Sydney Schiff. Stravinsky notes he is ‘as pale as a mid-afternoon moon’. Proust tries to pay Stravinsky a compliment by comparing him to Beethoven.

‘Doubtless you admire Beethoven,’ he adds.
‘I detest Beethoven.’
‘But, cher maître, surely those late sonatas and quartets …?’
‘Worse than the others.’

Around this time, James Joyce emits a loud snore (‘I hope it was a snore,’ adds Bell), then wakes with a jolt. Proust – looking ten years younger than he is, or so Joyce thinks – introduces himself.* The two are widely regarded as rivals; their works are often compared, generally to Joyce’s disadvantage.

Encounters at parties are subject to the vagaries of memory, and further obscured by layers of gossip and hearsay and inaudibility, the whole mix invariably transformed even more by alcohol. So it is unsurprising that the Proust/Joyce exchange should be related in at least seven different ways:

1) As told by Joyce’s friend Arthur Power:
proust: Do you like truffles?
joyce: Yes, I do.

2) As told by the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre:

proust: I have never read your works, Mr Joyce.
joyce: I have never read your works, Mr Proust.†

3) As told by James Joyce many years later to Jacques Mercanton:
‘Proust would talk only of duchesses, while I was more concerned with their chambermaids.’

4) As told by James Joyce to his close friend Frank Budgen:
‘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. Of course the situation was impossible. Proust’s day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.’

5) According to another friend of Joyce, Padraic Clum, Joyce wants to undermine the Schiifs’ hopes for a legendary occasion, so tries to stay as silent as possible:
proust: Ah, Monsieur Joyce, you know the Princess …
joyce: No, Monsieur.
proust: Ah, you know the Countess …
joyce: No, Monsieur.
proust: Then you know Madame …
joyce: No, Monsieur.
However, in this version, Joyce clearly wrong-foots himself, as his silence becomes part of the legend.

6) As told by William Carlos Williams:
joyce: I’ve had headaches every day. My eyes are terrible.
proust: My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me.
In fact, I must leave at once.
joyce: I’m in the same situation. If I can find someone to take me by the arm. Goodbye!
proust: Charmé. Oh, my stomach.

7) As told by Ford Madox Ford:
proust: As I say, Monsieur, in Du Côté de chez Swann, which without doubt you have –
joyce: No, Monsieur.
(pause)
joyce: As Mr Bloom says in my Ulysses, which, Monsieur, you have doubtless read …
proust: But, no, Monsieur.
(pause)
Proust apologises for his late arrival, ascribing it to malady, before going into the symptoms in some detail.
joyce: Well, Monsieur, I have almost exactly the same symptoms.
Only in my case, the analysis …

And from then on, for a number of hours, the two men discuss their various illnesses.

According to Schiff, who has a leaning towards accuracy, the party ends with Proust inviting the Schiffs back to his apartment, and with Joyce squeezing into the taxi too. Joyce then starts smoking, and opens the window, causing upset to Proust, an asthmatic who hates fresh air. In the brief journey, Proust talks incessantly, but addresses none of his remarks to Joyce.

When the four of them alight in rue Hamelin, Joyce tries to join the others in Proust’s apartment, but they do their best to divert him. ‘Let my taxi take you home,’ insists Proust, before disappearing upstairs with Violet Schiff, leaving Sydney Schiff to bundle Joyce back into the taxi. Free of Joyce’s company at last, Proust and the Schiffs drink champagne and talk merrily until daybreak.

* Proust’s handshake lacks vigour. ‘There are many ways of shaking hands. It is not too much to say that it is an art. He was not good at it. His hand was soft and drooping … There was nothing pleasant about the way he performed the action,’ writes his friend Prince Antoine Bibesco. Joyce’s right hand is another matter. When a young man comes up to him in Zürich and says, ‘May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?’ Joyce replies, ‘No – it did a lot of other things too.’
† Some maintain this dialogue cannot be accurate, as Joyce tells a friend in 1920 that he has read ‘some pages’ of Proust, adding, ‘I cannot see any special merit but I am a bad critic.’ But Joyce can be perverse like this: on meeting Wyndham Lewis, he pretends not to have read his work, though he definitely has.

From Hello Goodbye Hello by Craig Brown. Copyright © 2011 by Craig Brown. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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