Feature • Jeffrey Lependorf
Marcel Proust plans a party while Gabriel-Louis Pringué reminisces about parties attended by Proust.
One thing leads to another. With the publication of Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I wrote certain of my books), Raymond Roussel posthumously revealed the secret of his idiosyncratic method of writing. He would compose many of his fantastical stories by creatively connecting two different meanings of the same word, or two different words spelled nearly the same, in clandestine, virtuosic acts of metonymy. He describes this as “essentially a poetic method.” As strange as his procedure may at first seem in terms of writing, I think we all do something like this when we read, especially when we love to read; we allow one thing we’re reading to suggest something else to read and find delight in the surprises and correspondences generated between the texts along the way.
I had been immersed in Roussel, and, as often happens in these situations, I found myself wanting to read whatever he liked to read. Roussel idolized the works of Pierre Loti, who was then unfamiliar to me. I began by seeing what I could find out about him. Loti, a pseudonym for the naval officer Julien Viaud, though rarely mentioned today, was as famous in his day as Jules Verne (another Roussel favorite). His fictionalized memoir Le Roman d’un enfant (The story of a child) reportedly greatly influenced Marcel Proust. Proust and Loti both make appearances in the sadly out-of-print belle époque memoir of the socialite and “ethnographic journalist” Gabriel-Louis Pringué, Trente ans de dîners en ville (Thirty years of dining downtown). Pringué writes about many of the very people and parties Proust fictionalizes in In Search of Lost Time. Edmund White, in a footnote, mentions having read Pringué’s book in researching his Proust biography, but other than occasional references by others to Pringué’s book in its relation to Proust’s circle, little seems to have been written about Pringué himself, other than the delicious bit of reporting in Deborah Davis’s Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, that in 1892, at the age of fifteen, he served as a young opera escort to Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the American expatriate immortalized as “Madame X” in John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait.
I first set out to find a copy of Pringué’s Trente ans following a conversation with Jonathan Rabinowitz, the publisher of Turtle Point Press. I had been working on composing a short opera using as my libretto a letter by Marcel Proust (in a classic translation by Mina Curtiss in The Letters of Marcel Proust, now thankfully in print again from Helen Marx Books, an imprint of Turtle Point Press—it’s that very letter that follows, interspersed with my translation of excerpts from the Pringué). Jonathan said I must read Pringué’s Trente ans de dîners en ville, then added mischievously, “Oh, by the way, good luck finding a copy...” Two years later, having failed to find the book myself after considerable searching, but evidently having mentioned my interest to polite listeners now and then, I was delighted to be surprised by a copy of the 1948 book, out-of-print and in French, sent to me by the kind editors of A Public Space, who apparently take note of such things.
The letter from Marcel Proust referenced above is interspersed with every mention of him in Gabriel-Louis Pringué’s memoir, of which there are but six. Proust writes about dinner party plans to Geneviève Emile-Straus, one of his closest lifelong friends (the widow of Georges Bizet, composer of the opera Carmen, and daughter of Fromental Halévy, the composer of the opera La Juive). Reynaldo Hahn, mentioned here in both Proust’s letter and in the excerpt from the Pringué as having been spotted with Proust, remembered today mostly as a composer of art songs, was Proust’s lover. The menu that follows comes from another spot in Pringué’s memoir, from a party hosted by the Princesse de La Tour d’Auvergne in 1913. Proust quotes in the letter from a Baudelaire poem (“La Musique” from Les Fleurs du mal), from memory, of course.
Potage froid au lait d’amandes
Timbale à la Reine
Filet de barbue Cuba
Purée de Champignons
Noix de veau surprise
Petits pois à l’Anglaise
Poulardes à la broche
Fonds d’artichauts Béarnaise
Macédoine de fruits
LE PLAT PRINCIPAL
I only met Proust two or three times. His personality intimidated me—those large somber eyes that froze me with their stare. I don’t recall if it was at one of Mme Madeleine Lemaire’s entertainments at her little hotel on the rue de Monceau that I noticed them for the first time. These celebrations were melancholy and blasé. The living room walls were painted with frescoes of bouquets and gardens. A huge crowd thronged to these gatherings where you could see the various personalities of what was then called le monde élégant.
Forgive me for bothering you again but have you perhaps an idea now of how you will feel Monday, the first; do you think you could come for dinner or not until after dinner. I feel that it is hateful of me to pester you. But what can I do? Six people sent the same kind of answer you did! So if I am left uncertain until the last day, or if I count on the people who don’t come, I am threatened with being left tête-à-tête with Mme d’Haussonville, without her husband, and Mme de Clermont-Tonnerre, both of whom are definitely coming, but which would make me very uncomfortable for them, since I know them very slightly—or if to guard against this I invite more people now, and at the last moment the six others come, I am threatened with more ladies than I know how to seat or, at least, whom I should seat badly. And if you would say that on the first of July at seven o’clock you will come to dinner, I should be frantic with joy, but I should seat you badly if the six others came and I invited still others now.
The Comtesse Greffulhe was, for more than fifty years, the undisputed sovereign of Paris. People whisper that she’s the one who inspired Marcel Proust for the portrait of the Princesse de Guermantes-Bavière he traced in his novels. Festooned in hats, brushes, flowers, tulle, and feathers, she crossed all over Europe with the step of a goddess, balancing her lithe stature, her gazelle eyes illuminating a ravishing head of Diana poised on the neck of a swan coiled in chiffon, imprisoning quadruple strands of stunning Oriental pearls. Hostess to every imperial and royal house, she went looking for artists, scientists, music, paintings, and archaeological discoveries, which she brought back to Paris, giving new impetus to French trade, protecting the arts, and launching stars hitherto ignored.
I invited Madame de L—, whom I have not seen for years, but with whom I should like you to be friends because I am sure that something very fortunate could come of it for the Princesse de X—, who is in the process of killing her daughter. But she was, unfortunately, not free. My other guests are all people you know. But when I invited Dufeuille, I told him the truth, that I was afraid that you would only come in the evening. He, too, wrote me a letter saying that he wouldn’t know up to the last moment whether he would be free. But I had to stop there and not tell him that I would keep his place because I needed men and didn’t want, if he came at the last minute, not to know where to put him. I already have Fauré, who is not young, Calmette, for whom I am giving the dinner, Béraud, who is very susceptible, M. de Clermont-Tonnerre, who is younger, but descended from Charlemagne—and some strangers. Since it kills me to write, I do all this on the telephone, which kills me just as much although I don’t do the telephoning myself—I mean that it is done while I am asleep—so that a second person is asked when the first has already accepted. I have been at pains, in case you find you are too tired to come to dinner, to have something in the evening that will amuse you and not necessitate your talking. And that is why I am having Fauré. You will be played things you like; I think Fauré will play (alas, Reynaldo will be in London), and since we shall only be about twenty, I can still have the pleasure of your being there, of your eyes during the music.
La musique parfois me prend comme la mer
Vers ma sombre étoile
Je mets à la voile.
You could see Mme Dieulafoy dressed in black, her buttonhole adorned with the Legion of Honor. She was the only woman in France then authorized to wear male attire, because of the great scientific voyages she had undertaken with her husband, Professor Dieulafoy. The Marquise de Belboeuf was also dressed like a man, without permission, but the chief of police looked the other way since she’s the sister of the Duc de Morny. You could also see Reynaldo Hahn, so very young and already famous, with Marcel Proust, an orchid on his lapel, the exquisitely golden-redheaded poet Renée Vivien, and the lovely Mme Catulle Mendès, so made-up that people called her husband the “Guardian of Rouge.”
But naturally I could enjoy you even more if you came to dinner. I intend inviting Robert Dreyfus for the evening, but I have begged him not to talk about it because since I don’t even know whether I shall invite my sister-in-law, I don’t want anyone but the guests to know about it. I shall send someone to every paper to be sure that it isn’t mentioned. Because of that and also because it would make me too tired to have my apartment put in order (it is still in the state it was when I moved in and has not been arranged) and to have people smoking there, etc., I think I shall try to find at the Ritz, or preferably Madrid or Armenonville, a room that is shut off, where one can be at home: I think I should be less likely to choke that way.
As for the Hotel Ritz, it held an especially dominating position since the disappearance of the Hotel Bristol, where crowned heads would visit Paris incognito and find an apartment; this hotel had nothing but apartments. The Hotel Ritz was a kind of embassy, a Palace of Foreign Transatlantic Affairs. The headwaiter, Olivier Debascat, the famous Olivier, held a monocle to his eye and watched the servers like a general inspecting the operation of his troops. He was up on everything going on in the entire world; he knew the secret of every lineage, having listened to the confidences of monarchs, ministers, the mysteries of the great European intrigues, the boldest political secrets. His memory was fabulous. He was unaware of nothing in Parisian society. Very often, at night, his service finished, he went to M. Proust, to inform him about what had gone on. One day I said to him, “Olivier, they say that you’re the one who helps M. Proust with his work and that it’s from you that he gets much of what he tells in his books.” He looked me straight in the eye, declaring quite proudly, “One whispers it, one whispers it…”
I thought of inviting M. Reinach, whom I have not seen for a long time. But since M. de Clermont-Tonnerre—which I didn’t believe, but which appears to be true—is very anti-Dreyfusard and very violent, and since M. Reinach is so completely the incarnation of Dreyfusism, I thought that it was better at such a small dinner to avoid the encounter the first time I was having M. de Clermont-Tonnerre, who has invited me so often while M. Reinach never has. If however it would be pleasant for you, I think it would be possible to ask him.
The Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre was rather close with the eminent professor Gustave Le Bon the several times that I met her. She even brought him along one evening, by an amusing paradox, to the Hotel Ritz where I was unconcealed in my surprise to find him. She was also quite close with Maurice Barres, Anatole France, Marcel Proust, and Comte Robert de Montesquiou, who would meet with her in private.
I still have three miserable hideous little Japanese trees for you. Having seen them announced at a sale, I sent my pseudo-secretary to buy them. What a disappointment when I saw them! However, they will get to be nice, and they are so old and so little. It is like when one looks at Mont Blanc on the horizon through an opera glass and says to one’s self it is 4810 meters high. I wanted to have all this explained to you when I send them by the so-called secretary, who will bring them to you one of these days, because writing tires me so and I so love to write to you. Mme de Chevigné, according to formula, said to be sure to keep her place for her at all events! But since then she has refused. Nevertheless I am sorry. She is so very nice. Mme Lemaire doesn’t know whether she will be back from London, Mme de Brantes whether or not she will have lost a cousin, Mme d’Eyragues whether she will be on the banks of the Loire, M. Dufeuille whether his friends from the Basse Normandie will have returned (word for word). My dear little Madame Straus, don’t forget the date, July first; if you decide only at the last moment to come, don’t blame me for seating you badly, and if bad luck has it that you don’t come for dinner, don’t fail to come as soon as possible afterwards to hear Fauré and see me. I shall have you informed of the place.
Besides her traditional Tuesday gatherings, the Duchesse de Rohan threw grand parties for guests of note. On the invitation card, the social position of the guest was preceded by these words: “In the honor of…” You were to arrive precisely at ten o’clock. Back then the women would be covered in jewels and all wearing gloves, the men too, though uniformly in white suede, some of the older gentlemen still wearing opera hats they would keep folded under an arm. And there, moving like goddesses, three dazzling beautiful young women: Mlle de St. Sauveur, later the Marquise de Laborde, Mlle de Montagnac, later the Comtesse Charles de Polignac, and Mme Jean Hennessy, born Marguerite de Mun, daughter of the great Catholic orator Albert de Mun, who himself discussed future plans with the nuncio. Majestic, with a slow rhythm, passed the beautiful duchesses: the Duchesse de Noailles, the Duchesse de Doudeauville, the Duchesse de Bisaccia, the Duchesse de Brissac, the Duchesse d’Harcourt, and the effervescent Marie-Thérèse, Duchesse d’Uzès, for whom one could feel the Russian blood bounding across the steppes of her sparkling and fanciful spirit. The Comtesse Jean de Castellane, the ex-princess of Furstenberg, in the middle of a circle of diplomats, distributed her Olympian opinions. The ambassadors surrounded the spiritual Marquise de Jacourt, younger every year, because they had heard that Edouard VII, crossing through Paris in a few days, would lunch at her home, as he was fond of doing. Fair, pink, and covered in curls, the Marquise de Castellane made, using the length of her valet gloves, the gestures of a regent, trying to persuade with large annexing swipes, while the marvelous Vicomtesse de Janzé fanned herself with long black ostrich feathers. Coiffed with a staircase of white curls topped with egret plumes, pearls, intricate jewels, a sort of pagoda of gems that sparkled in the chandeliers, in one of her enormous flowered gowns of the kind that can’t be found anywhere but in antique stores, her voice charging like a drum roll, the Comtesse Véra de Talleyrand-Périgord, taking the handsome Hungarian archbishop by the hand, said, “I wonder, sir, where you spend the short moments that you do not devote to fashionable society?” Lucien Daudet conversed seriously with Marcel Proust.
Your respectful friend who would like to write at greater length if he weren’t so tired.
Jeffrey Lependorf is a composer who also serves as the shared executive director of Small Press Distribution and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. His “Masterpieces of Western Music” audio course can be downloaded at audible.com.
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