A Night at the Majestic

Jerome Kuehl | Published in History Today
A Night at the Majestic
Richard Davenport-Hines
Faber 288 pp   £14.99  ISBN 0571 1220088

Imagine a lavish dinner party, hosted by Taki Theodoracopulos and his wife the Princess Alexandra Schoenberg at the Savoy, to which he invites (among many others) those whom he thinks of as the finest flowers of post-modernism. They include the cultural entrepreneur Bob Wilson, the artist Damien Hirst, the musician Harrison Birtwhistle, the novelist Salman Rushdie, and as the pièce de resistance another novelist D.B.C. Pierre, who has been asked because he’s won the Booker prize. Would an account of the evening – the order in which guests arrived and departed, and with whom they left, the menu, the small talk, the bitchiness, who snubbed whom – be of any interest to readers of History Today, or indeed to anyone else? Could a painstakingly detailed story of the evening be worth retelling in ninety years time? Could pigs be persuaded to fly?

Such a dinner party was held on May 18th, 1922. It is the subject of this riveting new book by Richard Davenport-Hines. Naturally some adjustments need to be made: For Bob Wilson, read Serge Diaghilev, for Damien Hirst, read Pablo Picasso, for Harrison Birtwhistle read Igor Stravinsky, for Salman Rushdie, read James Joyce, for D.B.C. Pierre, read Marcel Proust, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1919. For the hosts, Taki and the Princess Alexandra Schoenberg, read Sydney Schiff and his wife Violet. And for Post-modernism, read Modernism.

This book is a fine example of how a well chosen example of a petite histoire can be used to illuminate events on a grand scale. All the principals knew, or knew of, each other, but Joyce and Proust had never met. Sydney and Violet Schiff, wealthy patrons of the Modernist movement, gave the party to honour Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes had that very evening performed Stravinsky’s comic ballet Le Renard. The work was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, who also danced the leading role. That accounts for her presence along with the other performers. Bronislava was the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, who had also been Diaghilev’s lover. Picasso was a close collaborator of Diaghilev and had married a dancer from the Ballets Russes. Proust and the Schiffs were as close as Proust could ever be said to be close to anyone. James Joyce was asked to come since he had read excerpts from his novel Ulysses to the admiring Schiffs. They hoped his presence would strike sparkling exchanges between himself and the now celebrated author of A la Récherche du Temps Perdu.

The meeting between the two men does not seem to have struck memorable conversational sparks, and one of the delights of Davenport-Hines’ book lies in his chronicling the wild discrepancies between post facto reports of the encounter. Was it monosyllabic, with Joyce (who arrived, according to Davenport-Hines, manifestly the worse for drink because he had no dinner jacket and had fortified himself to cover his embarrassment) curtly denying he had ever read any of Proust’s works, while Proust curtly denied he had ever read any of Joyce’s – as the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre said? Or was it entirely amiable, with the two men discussing their respective illnesses until 8am, as Ford Madox Ford, a fellow novelist later claimed?

It would be nice to know more about this extraordinary evening (held at the Majestic since the Ritz wouldn’t allow music after 12.30am) but Davenport-Hines has a rather different purpose in mind. He’s not really all that interested in exploring, except incidentally, the lives of giants like Stravinsky, Joyce, Picasso and Diaghilev. The big game he’s loaded for is Proust himself, and the tale of the night at the Majestic takes up only the first chapter of this substantial book. Quite a lot of space is devoted to Sydney and Violet Schiff because of their intimate involvement with Proust at this period of his life – he died six months to the day after the dinner – but virtually none at all to the others. This is a pity, since Davenport-Hines is obviously well informed about the Modernist movement, and especially its steamy side, but it is the steamy side of Proust to which he devotes most attention. It is hard to avoid, since we’re told straight away when the conventional biographical chapters begin that ‘Proust was a child of apprehension: he lived always at an unbearable pitch of anxiety’. That sets the tone, and the bulk of the work is devoted to a meticulous examination of Proust’s sexual ambiguity, his snobbery, his capacity to take offence at real or imagined slights, his insatiable and intrusive curiosity about the minutiae of the lives of servants, footmen and chauffeurs, as well as dukes, duchesses and princes, his hypochondria, his complex relations with Judaism, his duels, his investment in a male brothel, as well as his well-attested acts of generosity and kindness, and according to Davenport-Hines, his moral courage, or as he puts it, ‘the heroism underlying Proust’s feelings and experiences in 1921-22’.

The claim for Proust’s heroism derives from his sexual ambiguity, and turns on his publishing, at a time when homosexuals were widely ostracized in French society, of volumes in his Récherche du Temps Perdu which sympathetically described the lives of ‘inverts’ – a pre-First World War code for lesbians, homosexuals, and the sexually ambidextrous. One work in question was Sodome et Gomorrhe (the mealy-mouthed English translation called it The Cities of the Plain) published a year before the dinner at the Majestic, when Proust had already won the Prix Goncourt. In it, Proust boldly opened with a graphic description of a homosexual encounter between one of his major figures, the Baron de Charlus (who, by the way, is described as an admirer of Diaghilev …) and the sinister Jupien, who eventually leads Charlus to his ruin. The notion that Proust was heroic because though he feared his novel might be hostilely received by friends and critics, yet published it anyhow, does strain credulity a trifle.
Davenport-Hines enthuses: ‘he proved himself… what he had always desired to be, a brave and resolute man’. This was the same Proust whose contribution to France’s victory in the First World War seems to have consisted in grieving over the deaths of his friends, and observing ‘the insistent, even frantic affirmations of virility by men living in or passing through the capital’. Yet having said that, Davenport-Hines’ account of Sodome et Gomorrhe’s reception in Paris and London, like his account of other novels in the series is concise, witty and revealing – Alfred Noyes, who as he points out is now only remembered for his attempts to suppress Ulysses and prosecute Joyce’s distributors claimed Proust ‘was in himself enough to cause the fall of France in 1940’.

The English publishing history of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is instructive: Swann’s Way, the first volume, had a print run of 1,000 copies, and six of every seven readers, again according to Davenport-Hines, never purchased another volume. I doubt if even today The Cities of the Plain outsells Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses or Pierre’s Vernon God Little. Yet anyone who prefers reading about Modernist giants, however flawed, to Vertically Challenged Post-Modernists really ought to start with this careful, well written, and very entertaining work. Did you know Proust’s great series of novels contains neither drunks, nor bankrupts, nor dogs? I didn’t either, but thanks to Richard Davenport-Hines I do now – and that’s yet another reason for reading A Night at the Majestic.
  • Jerome Kuehl was consultant to the CNN-BBC 2 series, The Cold War.
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