Review. If those present were expecting verbal fireworks, grand philosophical discussions on the highest systems of literature, stylistic challenges and one-upmanship, or even just an acknowledgement of mutual esteem, they were sorely disappointed.

That one time Proust and Joyce met for dinner

On November 21, 1922, Marcel Proust’s funeral was held in the church of Saint-Pierre-de-Chaillot in Paris, three days after his death. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte was played. The coffin was accompanied by a military escort, as Proust had been a knight of the Légion D’Honneur for two years. The funeral procession crossed the entire city, passing through the Champs-Élysées to Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where he is now laid to rest, not far from Chopin, Balzac, Bizet, Camus, and Jim Morrison.

News of his death spread through the newspapers of Europe. In the U.K., the Guardian’s obituary, written by the newspaper’s Paris correspondent, begins by taking a year off his age: “he was 50.” The piece mentioned his failing health ever since childhood, his quirky manner, pale complexion and “burning black eyes”; in all, a short, frail fellow who had led a hermit’s life, making himself available only to a few privileged friends, who would encounter him “amongst precious furniture” at his home.

The obituary mentioned that his walls were lined with cork, meant to keep out the city noise, and that he had a reputation as a writer destined to appeal to a “select minority” of readers: “His style was difficult and obscure, and his intricate, exquisitely delicate meditations and analysis of emotions could never have appealed to the mass of readers.” Despite this, the columnist says he is certain that “of all idols and masters of present-day literature in France he is most likely to have won a place which time will not take away.”

In addition to ambassadors and members of the Jockey-Club de Paris, those who attended the funeral included most of the guests at an event that had occurred a few months earlier, at the Hotel Majestic. On the occasion of the stage premiere of Stravinsky’s Renard, performed by Dyagilev’s Russian ballet corps, Mr. and Mrs. Schiff had organized what they hoped would be the dinner of the century. Among the many honored guests were Proust, Stravinsky, Picasso and Joyce; along with critic Clive Bell, the entire ballet corps, and the young conductor Ernest Ansermet.

Much has been written about that evening, which the Schiffs put together for the main goal of bringing together the two great men of letters of the period, Proust and Joyce. There are a variety of anecdotes circulating about it, recounting different versions, but having in common an underlying truth: if those present were expecting verbal fireworks, grand philosophical discussions on the highest systems of literature, stylistic challenges and one-upmanship, or even just an acknowledgement of mutual esteem, they were sorely disappointed. Little or nothing of significance happened between the two. Nonetheless, that only makes their limited interaction of greater importance than any unlikely scenario of an in-depth exchange between these two very different characters in terms of temperament, background, habits and goals.

Proust and Joyce did have one thing in common: they arrived late. First came the Irishman, when dinner was already over. In an obvious state of inebriation, he called directly for the champagne. He sat down next to Schiff and remained silent for what must have seemed like ages. Then he fell asleep and began to snore.

Quite a bit later, between 2 and 3 a.m., Marcel Proust showed up, dressed smartly but looking pale and sickly.

Among the existing accounts of this event, compiled by eyewitnesses, acquaintances of eyewitnesses and literary figures of various kinds, we now also have a very interesting Italian work, Il giardino d’acqua (“The Water Garden”) by Andrea Pagani (ed. Ronzani, 184 pages, €15). The author reconstructs the evening and the encounter in a very enjoyable manner, drawing on many sources and combining them, building up to an impression of an exchange between Proust and Joyce that almost amounted to something of substance – while the latter described it as “a conversation consisting mainly of the word ‘no.’“

Not only does Pagani bring together the existing accounts, but he very cleverly interpolates reflections and inner dialogue, sometimes taken directly from the two writers’ works, at other times reflecting their temperaments: “My God!” thinks Joyce, “this Monsieur Proust again. But who cares about his book. Heavy. Elephantine.” Proust’s imagined thoughts when Schiff is about to introduce him to the Irishman paint a parallel picture: “Oh, mon Dieu! You’re not, by any chance, talking about that stunted, drunken fellow, sitting alone, there on the sidelines, drinking champagne?”

Among the distinguished sources on the evening’s events, there is an outstanding Italian writer of the time, Italo Svevo, whom critics, for various reasons, have compared to both Joyce and Proust. Before recounting his version, Svevo is keen to establish that there is no similarity between the two, and he intends to “separate them definitively.” He relates having heard from Joyce himself in one of their encounters in Paris in the mid-1920s that the two literary figures “had met only once in the flesh.” Here is what happened, according to his account: “One night, Proust, already in a lot of pain, resolved to leave his house with the plastered windows to the Champs-Élysées, probably compelled by the need to investigate in order to finish some sentence of his or some remark of his about some real event.”

The impulse that got Proust out of the house was in all likelihood his desire to talk about Beethoven’s last quartets with Stravinsky, although the composer wasn’t very forthcoming, cutting him short and telling him that he detested the German composer.

Svevo then recounts that Proust “made the acquaintance of Joyce and, distracted by his own interests, immediately asked him, ‘Do you know Princess X?’ ‘No,’ said Joyce. Proust went on: ‘Do you know Princess Y?’ ‘No,’ said Joyce, ‘nor do I care about her in the slightest.’” Understandably, “they parted ways and never saw each other again.”

It is likely that this version is distorted by Joyce’s own humorous exaggerations, as we know from multiple sources that the Irishman never indulged in such rude behavior. It does, however, tell us a lot about the difference in social and even political goals between the two. Of course, as writers, both were interested in even the most minute details of everyday life, but it remains the case that Joyce, unlike Proust, had a natural distaste for elites and always kept his distance from them. All in all, he remained a “self-educated proletarian,” as an annoyed Virginia Woolf had described him many years earlier.

While the conversation didn’t stop at princes and princesses, it certainly never touched on very deep matters. According to some sources, the two talked about their mutual passion for truffles; according to others, they shared information about each other’s ailments.

Joyce’s own recollection of the Frenchman – which serves perhaps as his best epitaph – can be read in his Finnegan’s Wake, where he immortalizes his literary colleague as he rightly deserves: “The prouts who will invent a writing there ultimately is the; poeta, still more learned.“ Here, Prouts (a play on Proust) also references an Irish priest (Father Prout), author of beautiful folk songs.

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