A Night at the Majestic, by Richard Davenport-Hines (The Independent)

Richard Davenport-Hines, in this imaginative, gracefully written book, helps Marcel Proust fulfill his wish to preserve beyond death A La Recherche du Temps Perdu . He’s an ideal friend for Proust: unobtrusive, affirmative, deeply respectful of his genius, patient and understanding of his contradictions, sexuality and neurasthenia.

The night of the title was 18 May 1922. An English couple, Violet and Sydney Schiff – rich, cultivated, Jewish and cosmopolitan – hosted a large supper party in a private dining room at the Majestic Hotel in Paris. It was to celebrate the first public performance that evening of Stravinsky’s short ballet Le Renard by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. To it Schiff invited the four men he most admired, all leading lights of modernism: Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce and, above all, Proust.

It was an evening to which George Painter, in his fine linear biography of Proust, gave only a paragraph. Davenport-Hines makes it into a social and stylistic focus. Many of the guests were of the Faubourg Saint-Germain nobility who inspired Proust but on whom he closed the door so that he could write his great novel. By the time of the night at the Majestic, he had finished it.

It was his life’s work. He was ill and ready to die. He arrived late, ate nothing, snubbed Joyce and suffered this brief severance from his hermetic dedication to work. Six months later, he was dead. With these two events Davenport-Hines devises a modernist structure with deference to classical unity: modernism had its roots in antiquity; its revolt was against Victorian repression, not Grecian liberty. Between them, he evaluates the issues that informed Proust’s life and work.

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(to be published in the U.S. as Proust at the Majestic : The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris )

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