Proust and the Schiffs - A Conversation with Stephen Klaidman

September 20, 2013 | By Diana Murray Watts
Klaidman's most recent publication

Stephen Klaidman began his career working as a copy boy for The New York Times. This rather humble beginning, however, would eventually produce a respected journalist, author and scholar with an unending passion for the written word.

After his last newspaper job ended in 1982, Stephen Klaidman turned to academia, first at Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics and subsequently at its Institute for Health Policy Analysis. During his time at the former, he paired with Tom L. Beauchamp to write The Virtuous Journalist, a seminal text that is still used today in journalism courses nationwide.

Klaidman’s most recent publication is Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis. The new book recounts the story of Sydney and Violet Schiff, a couple who, despite their Jewish merchant origins, found a place in the extravagant literary world of England in the early twentieth century. As Klaidman explains:

My original interest was sparked by a friend of ours in Spain, where my wife and I have a house. She, like me, is a great fan of Proust. She lent me a book about Isaac Rosenberg, a biography, and in this book Sydney and Violet are mentioned. This was familiar to me because I read biographies of Proust where the Schiffs are also mentioned. I was looking for a project at the time, and decided I would begin taking a serious look.”

Extensive research led Klaidman to uncover how Sydney and Violet first met:

“Sydney had a bad marriage to Marion Fulton Canine, which lasted 20 years. One day while he was traveling alone, thinking about how to resolve the situation; he went to the opera with his sister, who saw a friend of hers, Sybil Beddington, who introduced him to her sister, Violet. When Sydney and Violet looked at each other it was love at first sight. Violet said: ‘I will marry you but will not see you again until you are divorced.’ Two years later, when the divorce became final, they married and remained together until 1944 when Sydney died. That story caught my attention, as well as their relationships with T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis and Proust.”

This comprehensively researched story about the Schiffs stems from 1,300 letters exchanged with their modernist friends. The research, however, was not the most challenging aspect in the making of the book. According to Klaidman, it was:

decid[ing] what the story was that I wanted to tell. The Schiffs were interesting but they were unknown. I did not think a traditional biography would have been successful. What interested me most was their personal lives and the things that most concerned them and their circle. The 1918-1945 period is the focus of the book, and during this interwar period there was a tremendous amount of social and cultural ferment. These people wrote to one another about what their concerns were and issues they were dealing with. I was interested to see what these people made of the world they were living in.”

For Klaidman, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu is “probably the greatest novel ever written.” He extols its richness based on the wide range of elements that Proust addresses in his novel, as well as the extraordinary cast of characters based largely on people that Proust knew in his own life. Furthermore, he admires Proust’s capacity to display a panorama of life in France while major cultural and historical transformations were occurring. Klaidman explains that while Proust’s novel is not an easy text, he offers advice for readers of both French and English: “pay close attention to the rhythms of his language and the way he punctuates. Once a reader does this, the text becomes crystal clear and delightful.”

Klaidman believes that the work of Proust has made a twofold contribution to French culture: the first is capturing the social change taking place during the period in which he was writing, and in which a major theme was the transition from aristocratic to bourgeois culture to produce “a portrait of an age”; the second contribution is “pure literature.”

What would he like the readers of Sydney and Violet to take away from the book?

A better understanding of what modernist writers were like as human beings. The book conveys a sense of who they were, not in bits and pieces, but rather as a group portrait.”

If you are interested in learning more about Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis, please join us at Politics and Prose on Sunday, September 22nd for a book presentation with Klaidman himself, including a time to take questions and followed by a book signing.

Fans of Proust should strongly consider reading this thoroughly researched, intellectually compelling, and historically fascinating novel.


WHAT: Book Presentation of Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis with Stephen Klaidman

WHEN: September 22, 2013 | 5:00 p.m. 

WHERE: Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008

For more information on this event, please click here

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