When James Joyce & Marcel Proust Met in 1922, and Totally Bored Each Other

Joyce Proust

When we invoke the names of famous artists of the past, we refer to their most hal­lowed work—Orson Welles simul­ta­ne­ous­ly means Cit­i­zen Kane, for exam­ple, or War of the Worlds, and H.G. Wells means The Time Machine or…  War of the Words. It hap­pens that when these two artists got togeth­er in 1940, they found that their worlds, which had already met in Welles’ noto­ri­ous broad­cast, had quite a lot to say to each oth­er, genial­ly trad­ing sto­ries, ideas, and mutu­al admi­ra­tion.

Anoth­er his­toric meet­ing between two artists we might con­sid­er kin­dred, James Joyce of Ulysses fame and Mar­cel Proust of In Search of Lost Time, did not pro­duce such a rich exchange. As Irish crit­ic Arthur Pow­er remarked, “Here are the two great­est lit­er­ary fig­ures of our time meet­ing and they ask each oth­er if they like truf­fles.”

That, at least, is one account of the occa­sion in May of 1922, near the end of Proust’s life. The meet­ing took place at a par­ty for Igor Stravin­sky and Sergei Diaghilev at the Majes­tic Hotel. Though both nov­el­ists pro­pelled their great­est work for­ward by extrap­o­lat­ing from their favorite sub­ject, them­selves, the selves in their work are expan­sive and vast, tak­ing in whole cities, nations, and social worlds. Both were vora­cious read­ers with incred­i­ble mem­o­ries (as we cer­tain­ly know of Proust) and an intu­itive grasp of the cul­tur­al mech­a­nisms of moder­ni­ty. Such seri­ous con­ver­sa­tions the two of them might have.…

But one attendee, William Car­los Williams, paints a much more com­ic pic­ture.….

Joyce, writes Ben Jack­son at the Lon­don Review of Books, “arrived drunk and poor­ly dressed; Proust, draped in furs, opened the door.” Then, writes Williams, the two men sat in chairs side by side, while “par­ti­sans” wait­ed for “the wits to sparkle and flash.” Instead, they kvetched in the sports-and-weath­er small talk of two elder­ly men meet­ing in a doctor’s wait­ing room, or two Samuel Beck­ett char­ac­ters, beset by pet­ty com­plaints of ulti­mate impor­tance.

Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. 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, my stom­ach.”

Ford Madox Ford con­firms the account, but the party’s host, nov­el­ist Syd­ney Schiff denied it, reports Joyce’s most respect­ed biog­ra­ph­er Richard Ell­mann. Ell­mann doesn’t seem to favor one ver­sion or anoth­er, but he does give us Joyce’s own ver­sion, mul­ti­ply attest­ed. The Ulysses author remem­bered that their “talk con­sist­ed sole­ly of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc du so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’” Proust was asked if he’d read Ulysses, and like­wise replied in the neg­a­tive. “The sit­u­a­tion,” Joyce remem­bered, “was impos­si­ble.” Oth­er guests remem­bered the meet­ing sim­i­lar­ly.

In yet anoth­er ver­sion, we see the after­math of their conference—in a sto­ry that resem­bles many an end-of-the-night-gone-sour sce­nario. Syd­ney Schiff’s wife Vio­let recalled Joyce drunk­en­ly invit­ing him­self into a taxi with the two of them and Proust, and prompt­ly open­ing the win­dow. “Know­ing Proust’s dead­ly fear of drafts,” writes a Proust site, Vio­let “imme­di­ate­ly closed the win­dow.” When the cab arrived at Proust’s apart­ment, the French nov­el­ist “urged the Irish­man to let the taxi take him home,” then “fled to his apart­ment.”

The many con­flict­ing ren­di­tions all seem to agree on one thing: the meet­ing was a wash. Nonethe­less, one author recent­ly pub­lished what pur­ports to be an entire book on the sub­ject. Even he con­cludes “no one can say for cer­tain exact­ly what they said to each oth­er.” It’s tempt­ing to think things might have gone oth­er­wise, had they met ear­li­er or in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, giv­en Joyce’s ten­den­cy to get too drunk and Proust’s ill health and aver­sion to, well, com­pa­ny. The New Inquiry cites a remark Joyce made to Samuel Beck­ett about Proust: “If we had been allowed to meet and have a talk some­where….”

Although it’s said that both writ­ers con­fessed to not hav­ing read the oth­er, Jack­son notes that when Joyce “did admit to pass­ing his eyes over a few pages he declared that he did not see ‘any spe­cial tal­ent.’” He also con­fessed to some envy of Proust’s com­fort­able cir­cum­stances. Proust, who died six months lat­er, left no men­tion of their meet­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Meets H.G. Wells in 1940: The Leg­ends Dis­cuss War of the Worlds, Cit­i­zen Kane, and WWII

The His­toric Meet­ing Between Dick­ens and Dos­to­evsky Revealed as a Great Lit­er­ary Hoax

Edward Said Recalls His Depress­ing Meet­ing With Sartre, de Beau­voir & Fou­cault (1979)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (8) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (8)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Susie Lindau says:

    He should­n’t have opened the win­dow… :)

  • Tom Hart says:

    My col­league David Lasky illus­trat­ed this as a com­ic book sto­ry once.


  • Richard Livermore says:

    David Suchet in the role of Her­cule Poirot always puts me in mind of Proust for some rea­son. The dap­per fas­tid­i­ous dandy who avoids con­tact with any­thing to do with the ele­ments, yet some­one who can see inside peo­ple straight away with­out any prej­u­dice or blink­ers.

  • Gabriel Carpenter says:

    Joyce does defend Proust’s psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­men in Arthur Pow­ers’ Con­ver­sa­tions with James Joyce.

  • Mirko Frollano says:

    I remem­ber read­ing some­where – I think in Ell­man’s Joyce’s biog­ra­phy, that their meet­ing took place some­where else alto­geth­er, and that Joyce start­ed to smoke and almost gave Proust a heart attack, since he had asth­ma, though I don’t think I’ve ever read of this encounter before.

  • Tobyd says:

    Um, should­n’t the title to this arti­cle be a lit­tle more lit­er­ar­i­ly sound? I mean “and total­ly bored each oth­er”? Seri­ous­ly!

  • Josh Jones says:

    “Lit­er­ar­i­ly”? Seri­ous­ly?

  • Boob Thompson says:

    As I under­stand it there were 4 peo­ple in the taxi, Stravin­sky, Diaghilev, Joyce and Proust, Joyce appar­ent­ly was not invit­ed in and imme­di­ate­ly opened the win­dow to let his cig­a­rette smoke escape. Proust was a lit­tle dis­pleased due to his suf­fer­ing from asth­ma. The con­ver­sa­tion was min­i­mal, nei­ther hav­ing read their books. A tru­ly sem­i­nal moment with the meet­ing of four of the great­est cul­tur­al minds of the 20th cen­tu­ry

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.