The Majestic Proust

Proust at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines (Bloomsbury 2006)

In May 1922, just weeks after putting Fin to the pages of his great seven-volume work, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust attended a gala event at Parisís Majestic Hotel, a fÍte arranged by an American couple, Sydney and Violet Schiff. (Sydney was later to become the first official English translator of Proustís final volume, Time Regained, following the death of CK Scott Moncrieff in 1930.) The party brought Proust together with some of the most celebrated members of the Modernist avante garde, including James Joyce, Serge Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. While outwardly the event may have seemed just one more example of the Schiffsí parading of Proustís friendship to the world, the desire to create an epoch-making event was no doubt genuine, if just as self-serving. Sydney Schiff had writerly ambitions and saw Proust as the living embodiment of those dreams. While both hoped for a longer acquaintanceship, Proust died six months to the day following one of the grandest soirťes Paris had seen in decades.

Still, this book is far more than a fond reminiscence of a party, however grand. Itís also a perceptive critical examination of Proustís work and life, and how each affected the other. Was Proust homosexual? Rightly or wrongly, that question lies at the heart of his writing. Today, many would say yes. Although he clearly had same-sex relationships, the answer may not be so simple, according to Davenport-Hines. While the theory that In Search Of Lost Time is a homosexual book with the sex and sexuality of many characters transposed to suit the mores of the times is an intriguing one, and anyone with a modicum of gaydar can attest to feelings of sexual-psychological falseness with more than a few of Proustís characters, nevertheless, Davenport-Hines contends quite convincingly, Proust revelled in sexual ambiguity and the emotional frisson generated by his unresolved and frequently unrequited relationships, and this can readily be seen in his work, beginning with the narratorís youthful obsession with his mother. In that light, Proustís outright denials of his homosexual tendencies and his protestations of a more ambiguous amitiť amoreuse may have validity after all. (And thereby making his book, coincidentally, one of the longest instances of artistic foreplay on record.)

Proust at the Majestic is a refreshing work, coming after a number of similar books that do not as convincingly plumb the psychological depths of Proustís intense and difficult makeup, as well as his complex artistry. Not surprisingly, its forthrightness stands in marked contrast to the critical reception generated by the initial publication of much of ņ la recherche du temps perdu (including the volumes Proust did not live to see in print), as most of Proustís contemporaries were inclined either to ignore or dismiss outright the booksí sexual themes in which he brought homosexuality into the open in the modern literary world for almost the first time yet which are decidedly pronounced no matter how you read them, while a handful of critics complained in the name of public decency. The final chapter of Davenport-Hinesís book, dealing with the last months of Proustís life and the aftermath of his death (the news was greeted with the sort of reaction a rock star might envy today), is surprisingly moving and convincing in its verismo. Proust at the Majestic is one of the most impressive books of Proustiana to come along, whether read in its own right or as a counterpart to the work itself.

 
 

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