Review: A Night at the Majestic – Richard Davenport Hines

This book, A Night at the Majestic, makes a very useful addition to the large number of books about Marcel Proust and his times.  It is very readable, and successfully and entertainingly recreates the world of Proust.

The book opens with a large dinner party at the Majestic Hotel, Paris, hosted by Sidney and Violet Schiff and attended by Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and others.  Accounts of this party vary from one attender to another, but clearly James Joyce and Marcel Proust failed to build a rapport, partly because of Joyce’s strange behaviour (evidently morose and silent for much of the meal).

We read about Proust’s early years, and the influence of his father, a medical scientist, so very different in nature to his son.  While Proust’s great multi-volume novel is of course a remarkable achievement, many people would sympathise with Marcel’s father as he saw his sickly son fail to make much way in the world, the first part of his life seemingly consisting of one dead-end after another (unless of course you can see this period as a preparation for his masterpiece).  What would have happened to Marcel Proust I wonder if he had failed to inherit a fortune from his parents?

Davenport-Hines goes on to describe glittering social world of Marcel Proust, filled with minor French nobles, and various celebrities of the time.  Today, Proust would rarely have been out of the gossip columns of the newpapers, mixing as he did with all the successful opera singers, ballet-dancers, writers and painters of the time.  The Schiffs seemed to be addicted to celebrity, and Leonard in particular delighted in a long and intense correspondence with Proust which ultimately Proust found wearing.  In this book we spend much time in the company of the Schiffs and it is difficult not to see them as obsessive hangers-on who sought the road to glory by hanging onto the coat-tails of Marcel Proust.

Proust’s death gets a whole chapter of its own, and it is fascinating to read the different accounts of it, even one (almost certainly untrue) which saw Proust receiving the last rites and making a death-bed confesssion.  The whole of Paris seemed to mourn Proust’s death, and yet, in London, the newspapers barely mentioned it.  Davenport Hines notes the small number of sales of Proust’s works in London, and the distaste the British had at the time for the “degenerate” aspects of Proust’s homosexuality.

A Night at the Majestic makes a valuable contribution to the history of the life and time of Proust and would make an excellent read for anyone who wants to discover more about the author of Remembrance of Things Past.

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