a Proustian moment in time

In a Paris hotel in 1922, two society hosts brought off an amazing coup when they threw a party for Proust, Joyce, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso.

Diaghilev and Stravinsky found here

The party was a gem of cultural history. The Majestic was second choice as a venue; the Ritz had been discounted because it did not allow music to be played after 12.30am. The menu was chosen to appeal to both the Russian exiles in attendance – caviar and Russian hors d’oeuvres – and to the Proustians within the group, with dishes plucked straight from the pages of his novels – asparagus, boeuf en gelée, almond cake and coffee, and pistachio ice cream.

Cacao Pistachio Florentine and Mint Ice Cream Sandwich found here

The Schiffs might have been the hosts, but Diaghilev was the master of ceremonies. He “netted” Stravinsky and Picasso, who were both involved with the Ballets Russes, but the Schiffs really wanted the two great modernist novelists, James Joyce and Proust, both of whom were notoriously flaky when it came to social engagements.

James Joyce found here

James Joyce eventually rolled through the doors, visibly intoxicated and paralysed with nerves, as the diners were drinking coffee. The Schiffs were delighted, but the evening wasn’t complete until 2.30am, when “a small dapper figure … clad in exquisite black with white kid gloves … entered with an insinuating air“. Marcel Proust had arrived.

Marcel Proust found here

His attendance was a coup. Proust, one-time social butterfly, became a recluse in his final years, too fond of his sickbed-cum-writing desk to leave his apartment. This party was his first outing for a fortnight; he had been too ill to socialise since scorching his throat with a hefty dose of adrenalin, taken, ironically, to give him strength for dinner with the Schiffs.

image found here

On New Year’s Eve 1921, he built up to the evening’s celebrations with typically hysterical panache. “From fear of being unable otherwise to come to you, I have taken drugs in such profusion that it will be a man half-aphasic and especially wobbly on his legs, from vertigo, that you behold,” he wrote in advance to the host. He also asked his maid Céleste to call ahead 10 times to ensure that he was greeted with “a cup of scalding tea“, and that there were no draughts at the venue. In the last year of his life, this hypochondria became so extreme that he requested his morning post to be steamed in disinfectant. 

ducklings in a teacup found here

The inveterate social climber was no doubt tempted out of his bed by the stellar company on the menu at the Majestic. Diaghilev, “the most wonderful Falstaffian character”, impressed the author. He was fascinated by Diaghilev’s turbulence in his emotional life, his desperate, passionate love for sometimes very inappropriate young men, for which he was willing to risk artistic success.

Diaghilev and Serge Lifar found here

As for Picasso: “Although one mustn’t read too much into this, Proust was quite attracted to stocky, not very tall, southern-looking men. The great love of his life, his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, looked like a plumper version of Picasso. So Proust was definitely pro-Picasso, though I don’t suppose Picasso was pro-anyone very much except Picasso.

Picasso found here

Proust’s conversation with Stravinsky had a less-than-auspicious start. Princesse Violette Murat flounced out of the party, looking daggers at him as he arrived. Gossip about her meanness was rife, and she was mortally offended by rumours that one of Proust’s particularly parsimonious characters was based on her. With her strange lack of physical proportions, he once said of her “She looks more like a truffle than a violet

The meeting of the two modernist minds was by far the most eagerly anticipated of the evening and, as a result, there are varying accounts of the exchange between Proust and Joyce. Joyce  was quoted as saying, “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. The situation was impossible.”

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46 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. At the risk of seeming vapid at a great post, well, um… that Italian ice cream looks to die for.

    • It does, doesn’t it Carl?

      • Why is it that invariably my first reaction to your grand posts is usually found in a comment quite near the top of the queue? I too was riveted by the gorgeous ice cream sandwich! However, the party sounded like the sort of one I would love to have been the fly on the wall at.

  2. Doesn’t it? I’m also pondering how mentally exhausting it would have been to be at such a gathering of eccentrics. The constant one upmanship for bizarre behaviour and inappropriate outbursts from all directions would be quite taxing.

    But yeah, the icecream would more than make up for it.

    • I’d be happy to sit in a corner and just watch it all unfold

      • Me, too.

  3. Diaghilev must have had bad PR because he was the only one that I was unfamiliar with.

    • I take it you’re not into ballet bearman

      • And Grand jeté!
        (thank you, Wikipedia!)

  4. And they wonder why some people hate parties…

    The King

    • Indeed. But you know what? I think I’d make an exception for this one. Providing you and queenwilly were coming too

      • Bless…

        The King

  5. Doesn’t Stravinsky look like he would have made a great silent movie villain?

    • He looks a little like Dr Crippen

  6. That’s a party I would’ve loved to have attended – for the “stellar company” and the food.

    • Proust, Picasso and ice cream. It doesn’t get much better than that

  7. Sounds like the kind of party a Three Stooges’ pie fight was MADE for.

    • Really? I’m don’t think Proust would be pleased with that idea

      • Hence the perfection of the pie fight. It ain’t fun until somebody disapproving gets a faceful of custard!

  8. She looks more like a truffle than a violet. Lol, but I’ll be mad too.

    The mint ice-cream looks so yummy.

    • I like the Florentine sandwich idea

  9. You always find the cutest baby animals to quench my practically undetectable maternal instinct.

    • Those ducklings were just for you darlin’

  10. Proper A listers…not like the Z listers we seem to have to read about in the tabloid press. Marvelous; assume my invite is still in the post…

  11. Oh to have been a fly on the wall …

    • Or a pussycat under a chair

  12. I would have probably fit right in, but then I would never have come out of my room….God Bless You

    Three-quarters of the sicknesses of intelligent people come from their intelligence. They need at least a doctor who can understand this sickness.
    Marcel Proust

    • So that’s what’s wrong with me

      • I guess you’ll have to find a doctor “Sick” enough to know., Or, Intelligent enough…

        Bless You , I just dropped in to do a little button pushing…I’ll Twitter you “D”, and share your Ink with Farcebook…I love reading them, I’m sure others will.

  13. I tried to comment, but the huge cocktail of drugs I took to give me the courage to approach Nurse Myra has left me totally disorientated and unable to remember even my own name. Pablo? Marcel? Igor?

    • Haha…. I’m really pretty approachable

  14. I think I’d have given it a miss. Boeuf en gelée sounds pretty unappetising. I’m not a fan of jellied savouries unless it’s a good pork pie.

    • Me neither. But there was ice cream to follow!

  15. Ahhh . . . the social climbers of the day and their respective gatherings. Now we’re stuck with Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. I asked my niece recently if what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas (she works there). She said the new on is what goes on in Vegas goes on twitter.

    Really no such thing as titillating “would it, could it, did it” stories anymore. Sad.

    • Someone should bring back the “salon”. Artistic types would meet at someone’s home once a week or so and discuss current affairs and literature. Can’t imagine the Kardashians doing that

  16. That’s the world’s greatest party. I love the “no” conversation. I’ve been flung into “no” conversations before.

    I hope that no one has to be medicated beforehand to be able to tolerate one of my parties. Not that I give many. When I do, I make sure to medicate myself.

    • I hate parties. What would you prescribe for me Dr Robin?

  17. It was a fabulous Parisian moment when Joyce and Proust tried to out-bow-tie each other. Fabulous tale. Picasso and Pistacchio are vying for my affections.

    • I knew you’d like this story Mitzi

  18. Ducklings were adorable!

    Sounds like quite the event.

    • … with a fabulous dessert

  19. Quite a cast of characters at that party. Any one of them would be more than enough for me.

    • If you had to pick one, who would it be? I think I’d go with Proust

  20. Obviously I’m extremely tired, because I can’t stop laughing at the idea of a large man shouting obscenities and stabbing women in the buttocks…

  21. No space to breathe with all those egos in one room – what a weird bunch!

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