Richard Davenport-Hines: Proust at the Majestic
I have both the American and British edition of this book, and the references I make here are to the American edition. It's a good book, an interesting book, and the reviews by the critics are generally good and appreciative. What some pick up on, and what I am concentrating on, is the author's animus against Sydney Schiff, but there there are positive moments too. When I recently reread the book I marked with a pencil in the margin al references to my second cousin Sydney Schiff, and to his wife Violet, and also marked with an exclamation mark all references to Sydney that I considered gratuitously offensive, and in particular antisemitic. There, I have declared my interest at the very beginning. I think that the author betrays middle class English gut reaction antisemitism, something I am well used to, and I shall go through these references.
It is on page 4 of the book that the author introduces us to the Schiffs via a quote from a contribution that T. S. Eliot made to Violet Schiff's obituary in the Times. The reference given by the author is to the Letters of T. S. Eliot, but I can check this. Unfortunately the footnotes to the American edition, which is what I have with me here in Trieste, lack a key to the many abbreviations. I do need to check the references too, as I am suspicious of many of them, some being from Sydney Schiff's novels, which, although autobiographical, are also semifictional.
Clive Bell is several times quoted as a reliable source in this book as he described the evening at the Majestic in his own book 'Old Friends'. However, he is a tainted source, famously antisemitic, not at all friendly to the Schiffs. I need to provide some quotes here in support of this. Davenport-Hines merely says that Bell was "a gregarious, grateful guest who seldom failed to gladden his companions with his infectious social glee." Davenport-Hines nowhere suggests that Bell is other than totally reliable, which is something other writers would dispute.
On page 10 we start meeting the pejorative language concerning the Schiffs that leaves a grimace on the reader's face. Sydney Schiff is accused of having "netted" Diaghilev, and in the same sentence he is accused of "catching" Stravinsky and Picasso. Such distasteful slurs are quite unnecessary. If the host had been Lord Derwent or the Duke of Marlborough, both prominent in Parisian art and cultural circles at the time, such language would never have been used by Davenport-Hines, who reflects the attitude shown by my grandfather, who, meeting Lord Derwent thirty years later whilst walking at Hackness in Yorkshire, reported that he was a born gentleman of great breeding, and quite unaware of Lord Derwent's wild youth in Paris, and the brevity of his noble ancestry.
There is a good and fair account of the Schiffs and the meal on pages 26 onwards, despite the repetition that Sydney was over partial to champagne, which I suspect is based on Proust's letter to Sydney advising him to cut back on his consumption. On page 29 there is a very kind acknowledgement of the role of the Schiffs in Proust's life: "It was a great compliment to the English couple - and an eloquent affirmation of his devotion to them - that he appeared at their Ballet Russes party."
This chapter with the account of the famous meal ends with some more nasty digs at the Schiffs in its final paragraph:
"...the presence of Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso made the Schiffs' evening a unique event in the history of twentieth-century art: it was the sole occasion when the most magnificent exponents of early twentieth-century Modernism gathered in the same room."
Then Davenport-Hines has his digs, reminding me of the digs that were made at the same time against Lady Ottoline Morrell:
"For the Schiffs it was an opportunity to share their famous hospitality but also to show off the celebrated names who would accept their hospitality."
Really? Show off to whom? The author has already told us that they did not send their guest list to the Paris newspapers. There is absolutely no evidence that they showed off. And there is another dig:
"Though the evening was ostensibly in honour of Diaghilev, the great lion whom they most rejoiced to catch was Proust. They used the party as a way to keep him in their social clutches and continued to send him unctuous compliments in the months that followed." What an outrageous and unnecessary slur, a slur that seems contradicted on the very next page at the beginning of the second chapter, where the accidental first meeting of the Schiffs with Proust is described. Their affection and admiration was mutual, even if both Sydney and Marcel wrote letters that to us can appear over the top.
On page 64 there is a good account of the Jewishness of Proust, and of Schiff's shared half-Jewish ancestry, and I give the author full credit for this.
Page 124 gives due credit to Sydney Schiff for his account of the relationship between Schiff and his housekeeper, but chapter 5 on page 134 begins gratingly "When the Jewish playboy and patron of the arts Sydney Schiff began reading 'Du côté de chez Swann' in 1916..." I have never found evidence that Sydney Schiff was ever, in any way, a playboy. The author continues: "Schiff... moved among purely moneyed people, talked too much, was self-indulgent about his nerves and prone to whine." This is mostly quite untrue. Although he inherited wealth, Schiff supported artists and poets from humble backgrounds. His correspondence with Isaac Rosenberg, for example, is touching. Artists, writers and poets enjoyed his and Violet's company and encouragement. Certainly outrageously awful people like Wyndham Lewis were more than happy to bite the hand that not only fed him but believed in him and his work. Davenport-Hines gives the misanthropic Wyndham Lewis his due on page 231.
We are back with the pejoratives concerning the Schiffs in the opening words of Chapter 8, where the author says "Violet and Sydney Schiff oozed through Proust's life during the early summer of 1922 like pigment colouring a fabric. For two months they seemed to commandeer his social energies." The author continues "In a self-serving memoir published in 1924..." And "...they were too possessive." On page 248 the aurora continues "In London, between the wars, the Schiffs were known as gracious if persistent lionisers; but in Paris their fixation with Proust became obsessive, raw and unveneered." No evidence is offered for the first claim. And a reading of Proust's letters to the Schiffs suggests the relation and the feelings were mutual. The comparison by Davenport-Hines between Schiff, and Proust's character Nissim Bernard, is loathsome and objectionable, though on the following page the author redeems himself with a much better account of the Schiffs on page 249. Interestingly, the author points out that "Ezra Pound, for one, was relieved to have avoided them during their visit to Paris in 1922." Is this the Ezra Pound noted for his antisemitism?
The author mentions on page 251 that Schiff's grandfather was Frankfurt-born and a banker in Trieste, with no sources, but both are incorrect. The first is no doubt attributable to Theophilous Boll. His grandfather Leopold was a merchant with widespread shipping interests. There were no connections with Bonn, though, that I am aware of, and wonder where this comes from. Perhaps he means Hamburg. And Alfred Schiff had no funeral at Brookwood Cemetery: his will requested a cremation with no ceremony or service whatsoever.
Sydney Schiff, despite his Christian belief, also requested cremation with no ceremony or service. He and his wife left no personal papers or diaries. He seems to have sought no personal aggrandisement, no fame or glory. Although Wyndham Lewis reluctantly painted a portrait of Violet, Sydney never had his own portrait painted. Although privileged, he was generous. He had no children, but his creative urges were satisfied through his writings, and especially through the support he gave to others. I am at present transcribing the correspondence between him and the artist Richard Eurich. Unusually both sides of the correspondence survive, and they present a different picture, of friendship, of encouragement and belief in the younger artist like a father for his son. There is no pretentiousness, no ownership, no patronage, but much humanity, belief and admiration.
The account of the English translation of Proust's masterpiece is interesting, and Davenport-Hines gives a fair and balanced version of the story, one in which surprisingly Schiff comes out well. Schiff's translation of the final volume has often been derided, and quickly supplanted, to be forgotten. In his final acknowledgement at the very end of the book Davenport-Hines gives primacy to Schiff's translation, rejecting the "high-handed re-writing or slop-shod approximations to which several other translators have resorted." Traduttore traditore. Sydney Schiff could have wished for no greater recognition than this.
Trieste, 3rd May, 2016