Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Proust at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines

"Surely some of you know what we're talking about: that shelf filled with books you meant to read or, more likely, fully intend to read some day. When Luis introduced that phrase [the Shelf of Constant Reproach] at a meeting last week, we all admitted to some revered works of literature on our shelves. 'Anything by Proust!' some of us shouted out."

Marcel Proust has been malingering on my Shelf of Constant Reproach for quite some time-ever since I first started to try to read Lydia Davis' acclaimed translation of Swann's Way.  So, since Proust fit neatly into my Paris: The Luminous Years reading challenge, I thought I would try to tempt myself back to Swann's Way with a little light reading about the author himself.
Unfortunately, I was somewhat underwhelmed with my choice. Proust at the Majestic is a bit of a misnomer, I think, for a book where Proust's appearance at a party at Paris' Hotel Majestic plays such a tiny part. The first & next-to-last chapters make a nice framing device for the book: Chapter 1 introduces the party at the Majestic, which was attended not only by Proust but also by Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, & Diaghilev; while Chapter 8 introduces us to Sydney & Violet Schiff, the hosts of the infamous party, & their relationship with the author. Other than those chapters, the party was only mentioned once or twice.  I didn't understand the significance of the party to the book.

The rest of the book meandered a bit, trying to decide if it was a biography of Proust or literary criticism, & featuring long tangents into the lives of other celebrities of the era. It seemed to be well-researched & had a lot of interesting information-it just lacked focus.  Perhaps the author was trying to set a scene, but it was just too dense & a little too dry.  I did learn a lot about Proust, the role of homosexuality in his life & work, his illness (he "renounced his life, & forfeited his creative spirit, in order to fulfil his vocation"), his interest in all the social classes ("he ardently, sincerely found transcendant profundity in people & things that were generally dismissed as mundane"). It was just not a compelling read for me.

Maybe Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb, in which Proust plays a part, will manage to tempt me back to Swann's Way.  But for now, it's back to the Shelf of Constant Reproach.

1 comment:

Scott, ABCLS Staff Member said...

OK --

"The Shelf of Constant Reproach" has now been added to my mental database, and will see daily use.

Thanks for this post,