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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Not Very Majestic

A book which one recently began with high expectations was Richard Davenport-Hines' A Night At The Majestic. The Faber (UK) edition is packaged as a description of the events during a dinner party in Paris in 1922, the apogee of Modernism. (1922: the same year that both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published.) This wasn't your average dinner: among the guests were Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso. The mind boggles: all of them together, at one table? But while the first chapter takes you straight into the party's guest list and hosts Sydney and Violet Schiff's planning, the rest of the book is a paean to Proust, explaining in great detail the circumstances of his life and how they impacted his masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu. Which is all very well, but it defeats the purpose of picking up the book in the first place. The problem is that details of that historic dinner are disappointingly slight -- Joyce arrived drunk, Proust spoke about his stomach ailments -- and while the author does the best he can to pad it out, the rest of the time he painstakingly dwells on his adulation for Proust. Since, alas, one hasn't read the Frenchman's multivolume masterpiece (it's on the shelf, gathering dust and glaring at one accusingly), Davenport-Hines' book didn't leave much of an impact. Why, it could well have been titled Proust And Some Other Guys. Perhaps one ought to pick it up again when -- and if -- one actually begins Swann's Way and works one's way through the rest.

N.B. The US edition of the book has a different title: Proust at the Majestic: The last days of an author whose book changed Paris. Which, while still hyperbolic, is a lot more appropriate.


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