Food for thought – Lara Marlowe on the centenary of the dinner at the Majestic

An Irishwoman’s Diary

'Monsieur Niall Burgess, Ambassador of Ireland in France, and Madame Marie Morgan Burgess request the honour of your presence on the occasion of the centenary of the dinner at the Majestic," the invitation said.

The evening at the Majestic, now the Peninsula Hotel, just a few blocks from the Irish Embassy, has gone down in the annals of 20th-century art, literature, music, and dance. It was hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, a wealthy English couple, on May 18th, 1922.

As recounted by Frank McNally in this column last week, James Joyce and Marcel Proust, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the painter Pablo Picasso (who designed costumes and sets for Diaghilev's Ballets russes), attended the original dinner.

Standing before Irish artist Michael Farrell’s imagined version of that evening, Ambassador Burgess salutes the extraordinary talent which converged that night at the Majestic.

“The daring of that generation in the 1920s was breath-taking,” Burgess says. “A group of people changed the way we see, hear, think of dance, remember. Collectively they had a profound influence on the way we live our lives in the modern era.”

According to Richard Davenport-Hines’s book A Night at the Majestic, Joyce staggered in after midnight, when the plates were being cleared and coffee served, sat down beside Schiff and stared wordlessly at his champagne flute. Proust arrived even later, wrapped in a heavy black coat, and wearing white kid gloves. The author of In Search of Lost Time would die six months later.

In the painting, Joyce slouches in an armchair to the left, bespectacled and bow-tied. Proust sits at a cafe table in the background, a fey and self-absorbed dandy. Vaslav Nijinsky, the star of the Ballets russes, performs at the centre, with multiple legs and arms, like an Indian goddess. Picasso smokes a cigar on the right.

Sean Rainbird, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, suggested that Farrell's painting should hang in the Paris embassy.

It belonged to the former Irish billionaire Tony O’Reilly and was then sold at auction in the UK in 2017.

When the Irish businessman who purchased it learned that he had outbid the National Gallery, he offered it to the gallery for the price he had paid.

The painting’s arrival at the Paris embassy, combined with the triple centenaries of the publication of Ulysses, Proust’s death, and the famous dinner, led Ambassador Burgess to organise a Franco-Irish soirée where virtually every guest had a connection to Joyce, Proust, Picasso, or the Ballets russes.

The menu was based on that of the "Déjeuner Ulysse" held at the Hôtel Léopold in Versailles to celebrate the French edition of Joyce's masterpiece in 1929.

Museum of Literature Ireland provided the original menu and a photograph of the lunch. Samuel Beckett is the only guest missing from the sepia photograph because "he drank too much and was either in the toilet or under the table," Burgess says.

It is unlikely that Joyce ever entered the Hôtel de Breteuil, the mansion which Ireland purchased as its embassy in 1954, 13 years after Joyce’s death.

Proust, on the other hand, was a friend of the Marquis de Breteuil, who built the mansion, and was portrayed by Proust as Hannibal “Babal” de Bréauté.

The French writer probably socialised in the very rooms where Ambassador Burgess held his gathering.

French artiste Cécile Morel walks among guests, reciting Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy in French and singing “Shall I Wear a White Rose?” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song” in English. Joyce had worked the words of those songs into the monologue, Morel says. Music was very important in both oeuvres, Burgess notes.

Jérôme Bastianelli, the president of the Society of Friends of Marcel Proust, reads an excerpt in which society ladies fret about their social status as they listen to a concert.

They would, one feels certain, have felt perfectly at home amid the gilt mouldings and crystal chandelier in the embassy’s grand salon.

When Proust organised a concert at the Ritz in honour of the editor of Le Figaro in 1907, Robert Schumann's Arabesque was on the programme. The Irish pianist Adam Heron plays the same piece for Burgess's guests. Heron's adoptive mother, Ann Heron, is the great granddaughter of James Connolly, a leader of the Easter Rising.

Schumann’s ineffable music, like Proust’s madeleine cake dipped in tea, conjures up memories of things past.

For a few moments, the assembled guests are transported 100 years back in time, in the company of great writers.