Like the “Long Count” boxing match from later in the decade, the outcome of a notorious dinner party that took place 100 years ago this week is still debated by fans of the protagonists.
Whereas the controversial fight of 1927 pitched Jack Dempsey against Gene Tunney for the World Heavyweight Championship, the dinner of May 18th, 1922, brought together James Joyce and Marcel Proust, rival claimants to be the 20th century's greatest novelist.
Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Diaghilev were all ringside for the occasion (in fact, strictly speaking, the dinner was in honour of the latter pair, to celebrate the opening of a ballet).
And as a clash of literary giants, it promised high-quality intellectual sparring, at least. Alas, the meeting did not live up to its explosive potential, an outcome perhaps foretold by a change of intended venue.
The party was initially meant for the Ritz Hotel (where in boxing terms it would have been the "Blitz at the Ritz"). Instead, because the Ritz did not allow music after midnight, it was moved to the Hotel Majestic, which does not lend itself to rhyming slogans.
The pugilistic metaphor might in any case have been better suited to other literary Parisians of the period, especially Ernest Hemingway, who really did pull on boxing gloves occasionally, sometimes against fellow writers.
As for Joyce and Proust, they were unlikely prize-fighters. Bad eyesight would have disqualified the Irishman, while Proust would have risked being knocked over by a draught from his cornerman’s towel.
Hence one version of what did transpire between them at the dinner party: a conversation dominated by their respective physical ailments. According to William Carlos Williams, the exchange went something like this:
Joyce: “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible.” Proust: “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.” Joyce: “I’m in the same situation, if I can find someone to take me by the arm. Goodbye.” Proust “Charmé. Oh, my stomach”.
Lending credibility to this account is that fact that, thanks to his frailties, the Frenchman was an unexpected guest. The host, Sydney Schiff, had mentioned the party to him but not made a formal invitation because (as quoted by Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann) "of Proust's known unwillingness to emerge from his flat".
On the other hand, Mrs Schiff disputed the ailments repartee, which Ellmann suspects was a later embroidery. By contrast, another witness, Margaret Anderson, suggested that the conversational keynote was mutual expression of unfamiliarity at the other's work
She recorded Proust saying: “I regret that I do not know Mr Joyce’s work,” and Joyce countering “I have never read Mr Proust”. After that, the conversation expired from lack of oxygen.
Then there is the notorious "truffles" version, as told by Joyce to Arthur Power. In that, the two men at least agreed about something: Proust having asked Joyce if he liked truffles and Joyce replying: "Yes, I do."
Finally, there was an account given to another friend, again by Joyce, in which the aristocracy-obsessed Proust kept asking if he knew the “duc de so-and-so”.
The answers were invariably negative, as were Proust’s when the hostess asked if he had read “such and such a piece of Ulysses”. As Joyce summed up: “Out talk consisted solely of the word ‘No’.”
One possible factor in the conversational impasses is that Joyce had arrived drunk, although he may also have been exaggerating his condition to cover for not having formal dress.
He was certainly not in awe of Proust’s talent.
While struggling to finish Ulysses, for example, he once admitted envying the French writer, but only his comfortable Paris residence “floored with cork and with cork on the walls to keep it quiet”.
Poor Joyce had no cork (except genetically, on his father’s side) and his flat was very noisy.
Elsewhere, in a verdict on Proust’s florid, meticulously descriptive style, Joyce commented pithily in a notebook: “Reader ends sentence before him.”
That’s the sort of one-liner he could have done with at the Hotel Majestic (or that a good PR person would have written for him and leaked to the press).
But on the night in question, he did have a chance to find what the “esprit d’escalier”. After the party, he and the Schiffs also shared Proust’s taxi home. That went badly too. First, Joyce committed the sin of opening a window, promptly shut by Schiff, who knew Proust was allergic to fresh air.
Then, on arrival, Proust rushed inside to minimise exposure, cutting further conversation short. In fairness to the French novelist, his precautions were probably justified. When the two men met again, the following November, it was on the occasion of Proust’s funeral.