Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 19, 2020

Sleepless in Paris: When Marcel Met Jimmy

In my previous post, I marked the annual observance of Bloomsday — June 16th — the day on which all the events in James Joyces’ novel, Ulysses, occur.

In Paris, on May 18, 1922 — three months after the publication of Ulysses — Joyce arrived late for a dinner party in honor of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, who had just debuted a new ballet. Somewhat later in the evening, a Parisian native who hadn’t been expected showed up, despite a recent illness. Members of the Paris arts community were accustomed to unannounced appearances by that dark-haired, mustachioed man in his trademark fur collared coat: Marcel Proust.

One can play this sort of “what if” game ad infinitum: what if two famous contemporary figures, both either famous or eventually to become famous, had met?

Despite living in Paris at the same time, acquainted with more than a few of the same people, this was the only documented encounter between two writers who were simultaneously reshaping 20th century fiction.

Joyce, 40, was quickly gaining attention for Ulysses, on top of a certain standing in literary circles for his earlier Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

At 51, Proust was a highly recognizable figure in Paris. The first three (possibly 4: yours truly is not certain) of the eventual 7 volumes of his In Search of Lost Time were in print, and both Monsieur Proust’s work and his idiosyncratic lifestyle were widely discussed.

The hosts introduced the two men, who promptly sat next to one another.

What did James Joyce and Marcel Proust say to one another?

Accounts vary.

According to one account, as told at second hand to William Carlos Williams, Joyce complained about headaches and his failing eyesight. Proust — allegedly — countered by complaining about his (perennially problematic) stomach condition. Both writers, it’s true, endured a long litany of physical ailments. According to this story, both men decided their failing conditions required them each to get up and go home immediately. In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellman* considers this anecdote probably apocryphal.

One person present claimed that Proust declared he didn’t know Mr. Joyce’s work, Joyce said the same about M. Proust’s, and the conversation ended there. [It is entirely possible that both statements may have reflected the truth at the time, but it’s not certain either man said that. Years later, Joyce claimed to have read the first two volumes of A la recherche, but didn’t elaborate.]

Joyce, himself — ever the re-embroiderer of his own legend — gave several different accounts to various people, saying to one that Marcel asked his new acquaintance, Jim, if he liked truffles, and Jim said he did. To another, he said Proust asked repeatedly if Joyce knew one or the other “Duchess so-and-so,” but the Irishman knew none of the Parisian’s aristocratic circle.

Editorial opinion: One might regard anything Mr. Joyce said with at least aliquid salis: a pinch of salt.

In her account, the evening’s hostess said the party ended when Proust invited his hosts to his own apartment, and Joyce came along. However, Proust reportedly repaired to his bedroom to recover from exposure to evening air and taxi ride, soon after which Joyce left. Later, Joyce stated that he would have enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Proust in that quieter setting, but he had no patience — given the late hour — to await the reappearance of the notorious night owl, Marcel.

According to William C. Carter’s biography of Proust,** “Proust, presumably unimpressed with Joyce, never related the encounter to anyone who recorded it.” Carter relies for his account of the evening on Mr. Ellman’s biography, repeating most of the above anecdotes, and has nothing to add.

Two titans talk of truffles? Dublin lad and Parisian boy compare ailments?

Sorry, that’s all we have for that evening in Paris, May 18, 1922. Eight months later, James Joyce attended the funeral of Marcel Proust, who died November 18, 1922.

We do, however, have their books. Now they must speak for the authors.

What meeting of two famous figures would you like to have witnessed? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020

I recommend both the following biographies.

*The primary source for this blog post is James Joyce, New and Revised Edition, © Richard Ellman; Oxford University Press; New York, 1982.

**Also cited: Marcel Proust, A Life, William C. Carter; © Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000.

Photos in the banner of this post are public domain. Both represent their subjects at younger ages than they were in 1922.


  1. Wow. There is a book waiting to be written. Unfortunately it would have to be historical fiction, but I understand quite a lot can be accomplished with that genre.
    Thanks for that great bit of info.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, that poses an interesting question. Wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s at least put that episode in a work of historical fiction.
      Hemingway and Joyce were acquainted. Hemingway was a proponent of Joyce’s writing. He wrote about an encounter with Joyce in “A Moveable Feast.” Not necessarily in an extremely complimentary way.


  2. Given the cross-currents running through our society today, I’ll take Tom Wolfe and one of the Bernsteins: either Leonard or Felicia would do, although both would be better.

    When I began working in East Oakland in the 70’s, a colleague insisted I read Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers. I hauled those books out recently for a re-read, and wondered what any of the people portrayed (including the Panthers) would think of where we’ve landed. It’s both amusing and terrifying how contemporary both books seem; I’d love to hear Wolfe and the Bernsteins talk about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An excellent point of leverage in a culture and … yep … all too familiar. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Many years ago I read about that encounter, either in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it was probably in Fitch’s book. Hemingway describes a meeting with Joyce in Feast, and walks home with him. I don’t think he mentions Joyce and Proust. In fact, I wonder if he ever read Proust at all? He was a definite proponent of Joyce’s work. Thank you.


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