Food for thought – Lara Marlowe on the centenary of dinner at the Majestic

“Mr. Niall Burgess, Ambassador of Ireland to France, and Mrs. Marie Morgan Burgess request the honor of your presence on the occasion of the centenary of the dinner at the Majestic”, said the invitation.

The evening at the Majestic, now the Peninsula Hotel, a few blocks from the Irish Embassy, ​​went down in the annals of 20th century art, literature, music and dance. It was hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, a wealthy English couple, on May 18, 1922.

As Frank McNally recounted in this column last week, James Joyce and Marcel Proust, composer Igor Stravinsky, impresario Sergei Diaghilev and painter Pablo Picasso (who designed the costumes and sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes) , attended the original dinner.

In front of the imagined version of this evening by the Irish artist Michael Farrell, Ambassador Burgess salutes the extraordinary talent that converged that night at the Majestic.

“The audacity of this generation in the 1920s was breathtaking,” says Burgess. “A group of people changed the way we see, hear, think about dance, remember. Together they have had a profound influence on how we live our lives in the modern age.

According to Richard Davenport-Hines’ book A Night at the Majestic, Joyce staggered after midnight, as the plates were cleared and coffee was served, sat down next to Schiff and stared wordlessly at his flute. champagne. Proust arrived even later, wrapped in a heavy black coat and wearing white kid gloves. The author of In Search of Lost Time died six months later.

In the painting, Joyce is slumped in an armchair on the left, wearing glasses and a bow tie. Proust is seated at a café table in the background, a magical, egocentric dandy. Vaslav Nijinsky, the star of the Ballets Russes, performs in the center, with multiple legs and arms, like an Indian goddess. Picasso smokes a cigar on the right.

Sean Rainbird, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, suggested that Farrell’s painting be hung in the Paris Embassy.

It belonged to former Irish billionaire Tony O’Reilly and was later sold at auction in the UK in 2017.

When the Irish businessman who bought it learned that he had outbid the National Gallery, he offered it to the gallery for the price he had paid.

The arrival of the painting at the Embassy in Paris, combined with the triple centenary of the publication of Ulysses, the death of Proust and the famous dinner, led Ambassador Burgess to organize a Franco-Irish evening where practically all the guests had a connection with Joyce, Proust, Picasso, or the Ballets Russes.

The menu was based on that of the “Déjeuner Ulysse” organized at the Hôtel Léopold in Versailles to celebrate the French edition of Joyce’s masterpiece in 1929.

The Museum of Literature Ireland provided the original menu and a photograph of the lunch. Samuel Beckett is the only guest missing from the sepia photo because “he drank too much and was either in the bathroom or under the table,” says Burgess.

It is unlikely that Joyce ever entered the Hôtel de Breteuil, the mansion that Ireland bought as an embassy in 1954, 13 years after Joyce’s death.

Proust, on the other hand, was a friend of the Marquis de Breteuil, who built the mansion, and was portrayed by Proust as Hannibal “Babal” de Bréauté.

The French writer probably socialized in the very rooms where Ambassador Burgess held his meeting.

French artist Cécile Morel strolls among the guests, reciting Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy in French and singing “Shall I Wear a White Rose?” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song” in English. Joyce had worked the lyrics to those songs into the monologue, Morel says. Music was very important in both works, notes Burgess.

Jérôme Bastianelli, president of the Société des Amis de Marcel Proust, reads an excerpt in which ladies of the world worry about their social status while listening to a concert.

They would have felt, we are sure, perfectly at ease amidst the gilded moldings and the crystal chandelier of the Embassy’s main drawing-room.

When Proust organized a concert at the Ritz in honor of the editor of Le Figaro in 1907, Robert Schumann’s Arabesque was on the program. Irish pianist Adam Heron plays the same piece for Burgess guests. Heron’s adoptive mother, Ann Heron, is the great-granddaughter of James Connolly, a leader of the Easter Rising.

Schumann’s ineffable music, like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, evokes memories of the past.

For a few moments, the gathered guests are transported back 100 years, in the company of great writers.