There’s a review (not available online) in the 10/19 New York Review of Books of a new book on Proust, Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose book Changed Paris by Richard Davenport-Hines. The book tells the story of an exclusive supper party hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, who held the party in order to introduce Proust and James Joyce. Here’s the reviewer’s account:
The Schiffs behaved like zoo-keepers coaxing two rare and skittish beasts into the same cage and hoping that something magical would come of their brief union — a bon mot, a fascinating discussion, a lasting friendship. The scene was set for one of the great meetings of Modernist minds. The food had already been cleared away when a shabby, drunken man blundered in, sat down next to Sydney Schiff, and, according to the art critic Clive Bell, “remained speechless with his head in his hands and a glass of champagne in front of him.” Later, he was heard to snore. This was the author of Ulysses. Then, between two and three o’clock in the morning, a small, dapper figure wrapped in a fur coat slipped into the dining room. If Clive Bell’s description is accurate, he looked somewhat like a rat: “sleek and dank and plastered.” This was the author of A la recherche du temps perdu.
Joyce and Proust failed to live up to the historic occasion. There was no sparkling conversation and the two writers never met again. This did not prevent gossips and writers of memoirs from inventing the dialogue later on. Davenport-Hines quotes six different versions, the most interestingly boring of which is the version Joyce himself gave to 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.”
Something about this pleases me. Why should two great writers perform for these people after all? It would feel like an obvious set-up, like two single people at a dinner party who are clearly supposed to meet and fall in love. It would make me want to rebel and act badly.
The review also describes Proust’s apartment, his last home, on the Rue Hamelin, and sheds some light on “involuntary memory.” Objects in the apartment:
were not ornaments but the apparatus of experiments in progress. Sydney Schiff noticed that a particular object — a jug, a coffee cup, or a half-emptied beer glass that had caught the sun in a particularly way — would be left where it was. “Sometimes he insisted on it remaining indefinitely, because he wanted to renew the sensation it had given him.” In A la recherche du temps perdu, these apparently trivial sensations occur only by chance. They bring about the epiphanic moments when the narrator grasps the whole “edifice of memory” and can begin to transform “lost time” into a work of art. In Proust’s apartment, those sensations were continually on tap. The apartment in the Rue Hamelin was a novelist’s laboratory in which involuntary memories could be generated at will.
So — is it involuntary memory or not? I’m not sure what to make of the real-life difference from the novel. I like the idea of the artist’s apartment as a laboratory, but it makes the ideas about memory in the novel seem artificial. As I’m reading Proust, I tend to think of it as reflecting reality — as Proust’s ideas about what life and the mind are really like — but of course, it’s fiction and there’s no reason to think the narrator’s ideas are necessarily Proust’s. He’s just so good at making you think that the narrator is Proust and that we’re getting Proust’s thoughts, when really, that’s not how it works. I know that’s not how it works, but the experience of reading makes me forget.
I learned another interesting thing from the review:
A man who subjects himself to a steady diet of caffeine, opiates, barbiturates, amyl nitrate, and pure adrenalin is unlikely to remain oblivious to the functioning of his brain. The quantity and variety of drugs that went into the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu are probably unparalleled in French literature. Proust urged his critics not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation, but it is probably reasonable to suppose that the vivid, hallucinatory memories that the narrator of his novel enjoys at intervals of several years were more common occurences for the author, and that they were produced by substances less innocuous than a madeleine dipped in a cup of herbal tea.
Quite interesting, yes?