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‘Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce,’ by Stephen Klaidman

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One hundred years ago today there appeared a novel written by a neurasthenic, somewhat effete young man of reclusive tendencies. To be exact, it wasn’t even an entire novel, just the first part of a very long one. What’s more, the author had paid to see his manuscript published. At the time, few must have thought that this vanity publication would still be remembered a full century later, let alone be revered as the opening movement to the greatest work of fiction of modern times (with the possible exception of, yes, that other prose epic, the one by the half-blind, lapsed Catholic from Dublin). The book that Marcel Proust held in his hands on Nov. 14, 1913 was called “Du côté de chez Swann,” known in English as “Swann’s Way.”

As it happened, Proust met his Irish competitor — James Joyce, of course — only once. On May 18, 1922, Violet and Sydney Schiff, the subjects of this dual biography by Stephen Klaidman, decided to organize a little dinner party in Paris at the Hotel Majestic. Their guests included Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Joyce and Proust, the greatest A-list in modern cultural history. (Its closest rival is probably the immortal dinner hosted by the painter Benjamin Haydon for Keats and Wordsworth, with essayist Charles Lamb providing comic relief.) That evening the two novelists exchanged a few words — nobody is quite sure what each said to the other — and later the sickly Proust gave the somewhat drunken Joyce a lift home in his chauffeur-driven car.

Today, the Schiffs are largely remembered for that party and for their association with several other great modernists, particularly T.S. Eliot and the controversial painter, novelist and all-round artistic agitator Wyndham Lewis. Still, these well-off patrons of the arts were devoted most of all to Proust. They championed his work in England. They engaged in a warm correspondence with him. “Sodome et Gomorrhe” (“Cities of the Plain”) was even dedicated to Sydney. When C.K. Scott Moncrieff died before he could start translating “Time Regained,” the last volume of what was then called “Remembrance of Things Past” (and is now generally referred to as “In Search of Lost Time”), the job was undertaken by Stephen Hudson, the pen name of, you guessed it, Sydney Schiff.

Both Sydney (1868-1944) and Violet (1874-1962) came from long established and wealthy English families. Violet’s parents were Jewish, as was Sydney’s father, but the couple were nonobservant and astonishingly tolerant of friends with streaks of anti-Semitism in their character (notably Eliot and Lewis). Violet’s family was particularly artistic. Her mother, Zillah Beddington, regularly hosted soirees for the tenor Enrico Caruso, the soprano Nellie Melba and the composer Giacomo Puccini. Violet’s sister Sybil became one of Puccini’s closest confidantes and, more likely than not, his lover. Another sister, comic novelist Ada Leverson, dubbed “the Sphinx” by Oscar Wilde, bravely stood by her disgraced friend when others turned away from the reviled “somdomite.” One of Violet’s brothers even helped Brandon Thomas write “Charley’s Aunt,” which became in its time the longest-running play in British theatrical history.

Violet was Sydney’s second wife, following an unfortunate marriage to a gold-digging American, with whom he spent two unhappy decades. But at age 40 he fell immediately in love with Violet — who was 34 when they met and probably resigned to spinsterdom — and she with him. Following his divorce (he gave the gold-digger half his annual income and a house on Lake Como), he and Violet embarked on a supremely happy married life together. In particular, she encouraged and supported her aesthete-husband’s literary ambitions, especially the seven-part autobiographical novel he called “A True Story” and published between 1919 and 1937. Klaidman doesn’t think much of the novel, though Proust tried to have one volume, titled “Elinor Colhouse,” translated and made available in France, Thomas Mann “warmly praised” another called “Prince Hempseed,” and the poet and critic Edwin Muir judged the whole one of the major works of early 20th century fiction. However, Muir and his wife, Willa — best known today for their joint translation of Kafka into English — were good friends of the Schiffs.

Throughout his book, Klaidman writes about the formidable Violet and fussy Sydney with affection and even, on occasion, a bit of dry wit. Sydney’s “father believed his sons had an obligation to work hard and his daughters to marry well. His daughters did not disappoint him.” But to my mind, Klaidman is too quick to repudiate the multi-talented Wyndham Lewis even as he dismisses Katherine Mansfield as being “infrequently read.” Surely, one job of the literary historian is to seek the merits of neglected writers and, when possible, send readers back to give their work a try.

In truth, I see several missed opportunities in Klaidman’s otherwise fine book. Sydney’s version of “Time Regained” was fairly soon replaced by Andreas Mayor’s. Why? A short comparison of the two translations would have been illuminating. Lyndall Gordon, one of Eliot’s biographers, thought that Schiff was, in some way, the poet’s mentor. In what way? We’re never told precisely, though Klaidman thinks this claim exaggerated or even nonsensical. And why did W.B. Yeats regard Lewis’s “The Apes of God” as a satire worthy of Swift? Klaidman just makes the book sound crude and vulgar.

At the same time, “Violet and Sydney” spends too many pages telling the essentially irrelevant and familiar story of Ada Leverson’s friendship with Oscar Wilde. More frustrating, Klaidman’s descriptions of books — whether Leverson’s or Sydney Schiff’s — don’t really tell you very much about them or convey much of their character. He also overpraises the Criterion ; even if it published its own editor’s poem and even if that poem was “The Waste Land,” that doesn’t make this rather staid periodical the nonpareil British literary magazine of the 20th century. The English Review or Horizon, even Scrutiny, are far better candidates for this honor.

But these are small grumps or debatable questions in what is an otherwise fast-moving, anecdote-rich book. During World War II, the Schiffs rented out a house on their country property to Max Beerbohm and his wife, Florence. The incomparable Max remained the consummate dandy even in the raw countryside: “Whenever he went out, even if it was only to put a letter in the mailbox at the end of the driveway, he dressed in one of his elegant suits, wore a gray homburg, and carried a walking stick.”

If you enjoyed Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” or Ben Downing’s “Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross,” and are wondering what to read next, you might try Stephen Klaidman’s “Sydney and Violet.” While it’s not as good as those two remarkable family histories, it’s still an informative and entertaining look at one of modernism’s most ubiquitous, if now half-forgotten, power couples.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

SYDNEY AND VIOLET Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis By Stephen Klaidman Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 268 pp. $27.95

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