It seems wholly appropriate that the finale of Marlborough LitFest 2021 should involve its patron, Sir Simon Russell Beale. Despite his commitment to the LitFest, his busy schedule as an internationally acclaimed actor didn’t allow him to appear in person, but his pre-recorded film is both a testament to his mesmerising skills as a dramatic reader and an insight into the remarkable ‘dinner party of the century’.
The film was introduced by Ben Tarring, who explained its context. Russell Beale chose to focus on an event that took place in the Majestic Hotel, Paris on 18th May 1922, where Sidney and Violet Schiff hosted a dinner party to celebrate the first performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Le Renard’ by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Among the guests were the other three celebrated masters of the Modernist movement: Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Some line up!
For the Schiffs, the great prize was Proust, whose revolutionary literary style, with its extraordinarily long sentences and richly detailed prose, redefined the novel. Russell Beale, too, is fascinated with Proust; he has read the complete seven volume work, ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’, in at least two different translations and it is this work on which he draws for his reading.
The film consists of Russell Beale reading six discrete passages: some from Davenport-Hines’ 2006 book, ‘A Night at the Majestic: Proust and the Great Modernist Dinner Party of 1922’, and others from Proust and Joyce. The contrast in writing style between the wry, journalistic voice of the historian, Davenport-Hines, the mesmerising, mellifluous prose of Proust and Joyce’s beautifully detailed, poignant evocation of Dublin life is wonderfully evoked in Russell Beale’s masterly delivery.
There are various accounts of the meeting between Proust and Joyce, but all agree that they did not discuss writing, which may have been because Joyce turned up to the party drunk and Proust appeared at three in the morning. It is reported that, whereas Joyce spoke of chambermaids, Proust wanted to talk about duchesses, that their answers were often monosyllabic, although they did have a shared interest in ill health.
The passages from Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, and book five of Proust’s ‘Recherche’ both focus on mortality and it is ironic that, within six months of the Majestic dinner party, Proust was dead. Perhaps he had an intimation of his own death, as he describes that of his character, Bergotte, who embarks on a philosophical exploration of the possibility of life after death, giving voice to Proust’s own speculations.
It is through their work that both Joyce and Proust live on. Russell Beale’s reading makes the prose sing and he recreates for us the magic of the dinner party at the Majestic as he transports us to that era when Modernism was at its height. The meeting between Proust and Joyce may have been underwhelming, but Russell Beale’s renditions are transcendent.