Joyce & Proust Meet

Fromrejj that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death:

On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following the first performance of one of their ballets. Joyce arrived late and apologized for not having dressed; at this time he had no formal clothes. He was drinking heavily to cover his embarrassment when the door opened and Marcel Proust in a fur coat appeared, as Joyce said afterwards, “like the hero of The Sorrows of Satan.” Schiff had mentioned the party to Proust but had not ventured to invite him because of Proust’s known unwillingness to emerge from his flat. Joyce followed Schiff and Mrs. Schiff to the door, was introduced to Proust, and remained seated beside him. The conversation has been variously reported. According to one account, which William Carlos Williams heard and set down, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches everyday. My eyes are terrible.” Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.” “I’m in the same situation,” replied Joyce, “if I can find someone to take me by the arm. Goodbye.” “Charmé,” said Proust, “oh, my stomach.”[1] Margaret Anderson writes that Proust said, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s word,” and Joyce countered, “I have never read Mr. Proust,” the conversation ending there.[2] Joyce told Arthur Power that Proust asked him if he liked truffles, and Joyce answered, “Yes, I do.” He commented, “Here are the two greatest literary figures of our time meeting and they ask each other if they life truffles.” “Proust,” as Joyce told Jacques Mercanton, “would only talk about duchesses, while I was more concerned with their chambermaids.” To Budgen he gave a slightly more extended version: “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No.’ And so on. Of course the situation was impossible. Proust’s day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.”

The party, as Mrs. Schiff remembers, broke up when Proust suggested that the Schiffs accompany him to his flat in a taxi. Joyce drifted into the taxi with them. Unfortunately his first gesture was to open the window with a bang. Proust being sensitive to fresh air, Schiff immediately closed it. When they arrived, Proust pressed Joyce to let the taxi take him home. Joyce still lingered, a little tipsy and anxious to have a chat; Proust, fearful of exposure, hurried in, leaving Schiff to persuade Joyce to leave. “If we had been allowed to meet and have a talk somewhere—,” Joyce said later, a little wistfully. But it was difficult for either man to see the grounds on which they might have met. Joyce insisted that Proust’s work bore no resemblance to his own, though critics claimed to detect some. Proust’s style did not impress Joyce; when a friend asked whether he thought it good, he replied, “The French do, and after all, they have their standards, they have Chateaubriand and Rousseau. But the French are used to short choppy sentences, they are not used to that way of writing.” He expressed himself in his notebook more directly: “Proust, analytic still life. Reader ends sentence before him.” What he envied Proust were his material circumstances: “Proust can write; he had a comfortable place at the Étoile, floored with cork and with cork on the walls to keep it quiet. And, I, writing in this place, people coming in and out. I wonder how I can finish Ulysses.” Proust died on November 18, 1922, and Joyce attended his funeral.


[1] [Ellmann’s footnote:] Mrs. Schiff denies that the conversation took this turn, and it sounds like later embroidery.

[2] [Ellmann’s footnote:] But at the end of October 1922 Joyce reported to Sylvia Beach from Nice, “I was able to correct the first half of Ulysses for the third edition and to read the first two volumes recommendés by Mr. Schiff of A la Recherche des Ombrelles Perdues par Plusieurs Jeunes Filles en Fleurs du Côté chez Swann et Gomorrhée et Co. par Marcelle Proyce et James Joust.” The medley is not without implicit respect. When the seedcake, shared by Bloom and Molly among the rhododendrons on Howth, was translated into French as “madeleine,” Joyce insisted on the unProustian “gateau au cumin.”

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