Discovering Proust


Clive Bell, the English art critic, was introduced to Proust by his lover, he doesn’t say who in his monograph Proust, published in 1928. Perhaps it was Vanessa Stephen, his wife and sister of Virginia Woolf, or possibly someone else. The encounter took on the air of a ménage à trois and recaptures the excitement of discovering Proust as the volumes began to appear.

Not until the spring of 1919 did I hold a copy of Swann in my hand; and then the introduction was contrived by a lady. She had fallen in love with the book and through the book with the author–as ladies will; and I, instead of feeling grateful for having been brought acquainted with a masterpiece, felt jealous–as will men. I began reading Swann, not in hope of a new experience, but with a view to picking holes in a rival. In so Proustian a fashion does the adventure begin. (5-6)

After my conversion the adventure became more Proustian than ever. It was a ménage à trois. Proust having become a part of two lives, an ingredient of a relationship, each new volume became an emotional event and the vagaries of his creatures matter for conversation, letters, post cards, telephonings, telegrams, even. The book with its moods lived on through ours–gay, agitated, intense, cynical: not only did everything about it become of consequence, everything about the author became interesting. God forgive me, I tried to look at the drawings of Mlle. Lemaire: I re-read a few pages of Ruskin.  (8-9)

Bell attended the Schiff dinner at the Hotel Majestic in 1922.

And at last, drawing level with my accomplice, I met the master. It was at a supper-party after a first night of the ballet; and at half-past two in the morning up popped Proust, white gloves and all, for all the world as though he had seen a light in a friend’s window and had just come up on the chance of finding him awake. Physically he did not please me, being altogether too sleek and dank and plastered: his eyes were glorious however. Though he was infinitely gracious, the call was not a success. In paying Stravinsky a compliment he paid Beethoven a better: Ansermet failed to keep the peace: ça finissait mal. Still, I had seen Proust; there was fresh food for enthusiasm, something new to write home about, more to discuss. (9)

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