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The Paris Bulls

In 1922, a dinner party was held in the Paris Ritz attended by Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso. Other than the guest list, no record of the event was thought to have survived. But on a recent trip to the antique bazaars of Idalou, I noticed a red leather folder monogrammed “JPS,” which contained several sheets of vellum covered with a heavy script in black ink. The writing was barely decipherable, but intrigued by the possibility of a revealed secret I bought the folder and its contents for five dollars. It took me a few days to get the hang of the handwriting, which to my surprise proved to be in French. Now even more fascinated, I sent a copy of it to my son who is fluent in that language. A few days later, he returned a translation which turned out to be an incomplete description of that momentous dinner written by its busboy. In so far as I know, this is the first time that this account has appeared in print.

The Lycee Henri IV reminds me of nothingness or thingness, I’m not sure which. But its cafeteria has cockroaches, which is why I took the job at the Ritz. I can have all the food I can steal from the bourgeois parasites. Last night, M. Diaghilev had a dinner in the private room to which I was assigned along with Andre the anarchist waiter.

Proust was the first to arrive at 20:30; he was under the misapprehension that he had been invited for lunch. He was wearing white tie and tails, a red woolen scarf, earmuffs, mittens, galoshes, a raincoat, and a very old fur coat—all of which he kept on through the dinner. His only words to me were, “Close the windows and turn up the heat.” There were no windows in the room and the outside temperature was 28 degrees Celsius. He sat down and pulled up the collar of his coat against his neck. He wheezed several times, put a very large white pill in his mouth, and closed his eyes.

Just then, Joyce entered. He was wearing a flannel shirt, flannel pants, a beret, and glasses as thick as beer steins. He sat down next to Proust.

Joyce.”

Proust opened his eyes. “Proust.”

For the next five minutes there was silence until Joyce said, “Whiskey.” Andre got some for him. “Leave the bottle.” Andre did.

Proust was seized by an avalanche of coughing. Joyce put a handkerchief to his mouth. “My eyes have been bothering me something fierce,” he said.

“That’s nothing. My tongue is brown,” said Proust.

“Really? Let me see it.” Proust stuck out his tongue, which indeed was a muddy brown. “Amazing – never seen anything like it.” Proust nodded with a slight smile.

Picasso then arrived, He was wearing knickers and a rugby shirt. A red bandanna was tied around his neck. He said nothing to either Proust or Joyce, rather he looked at me and said, “I want a waitress, a pretty one.” I looked at Andre who then left in search of a pretty waitress. Andre was remarkably compliant for an anarchist.

“You the painter?” said Joyce over his whiskey glass.

“Where did you get those glasses?” replied Picasso. “Can I see them?”

Joyce ignored the first question, but handed him the glasses. Picasso looked at them carefully and then put them on. He appeared to look closely at Joyce. I couldn’t tell for sure because the glasses were so thick. Just then Andre returned leading a pretty young girl by the hand. I had never seen her before.

“Your waitress, M. Picasso.”

Picasso turned his gaze towards her and looked at her for a long time. Finally, he said, “Amazing. Sit!” She sat. He took a piece of charcoal out of his pocket and began to draw on the white table cloth. He was sketching a portrait of the girl, but it was all screwed up. Her nose was where her ear should be. One eye was above the other. Her head was the shape of an ice cube. I’d never seen anything as ridiculous in my life. After a few minutes Picasso took the glasses off, looked at the girl, shook his head, put his hand on her thigh, put the glasses back on, and resumed drawing.

At this point, M. Diaghilev arrived, accompanied by Stravinsky. Diaghilev was also accompanied by two teen-aged boys with matching blond coiffures. He had an arm around each of their shoulders. He had the biggest and most luminous brown eyes ever seen outside of a pasture.

“Off you go, Carissimi.” He patted each boy on the rump and pushed them out of the room. “Igor, you sit there.” He motioned to the chair he had in mind for the composer. “Pablo, what are you doing?” He looked at his sketch. Picasso was hurriedly adding nostrils the size of the Louvre to the dislocated nose. “Why are you wearing those absurd things on your eyes?” Picasso ignored him, absorbed in his composition.

“Say, Paddy, can I have my glasses back?” said Joyce. “I can’t see anything when I’m not wearing them.”

After a long interval, Picasso looked up and said, “No.”

“Well, that’s alright. I can’t see anything with them on either.”

“You can bring the food now.” Diaghilev looked at Andre who bowed very low. “And bring the wine, too.” I have ordered a wonderful meal and a delicate Alsatian wine.”

“I can’t drink Alsatian wine,” said Proust. It gives me gas.”

“Same thing happens to me,” said Joyce. “And I get terrible headaches and constipation from red meat. Are we having red meat?”

“Remarkable, I can’t tolerate red meat either,” said Proust

Diaghilev didn’t answer. Igor looked at Stravinsky. “Igor you will eat the meat and drink the wine.”

“Yes, Serge.”

“Good.”

“I just had the Beethoven Opus 131 played in my living room,” said Proust to Stravinsky as an apology for his intolerance to Alsatian wine and red meat.

The beady-eyed musician looked at him with astonishment. The ends of his mustache curled. “The late quartets of Beethoven are an abomination to the senses and the intellect. The man was not only deaf, he was crazy. You had that stuff brought into your living room? You paid musicians to come to your home and play that noise?”

“You didn’t think the Rite of Spring a tad noisy?” said Joyce, but Stravinsky didn’t hear him, being too absorbed in his Beethovian funk.

“If you want to listen to string quartets stick to Haydn.” He folded his arms across his chest. His gaze than caught Picasso’s now almost completed portrait of a plastic surgeon’s nightmare. “Pablo, you need new eye glasses.”

Proust had started to furiously chew his nails in response to Stravinsky’s heretical attack on music’s sanctum sanctorum. He was so nervous that he blurted, “I heard Parsifal, or was it Tristan, at the Opera last week.”

“M. Proust, I had heard that you were a man of taste and discernment. The only evidence I can see in support of that view is your inability to distinguish between Parsifal and Tristan, both of which are pig manure, offal, crap, poison – do you understand me?”

Picasso, who had been paying no attention to Stravinsky’s tirades, finished his drawing. He looked at it intently, both with and without his purloined glasses on, and then satisfied, he signed it “Picasso” and pulled the tablecloth off of the table without even rippling the water in the Ritz’s best crystal glasses. He handed the cloth to the girl.

“This is for you, my dear.” Before she could look at it, he took her in his arms and kissed her with even more warmth than Stravinsky had mustered against Beethoven and Wagner. She did not resist him. After what seemed to Proust and Diaghilev at least a fortnight, he let her go. It took her a moment or two to collect herself, then she looked at her picture.

The smile that had been on her face vanished like virtue in a boy’s school. She seemed about to scream, but didn’t. She dropped the cloth and ran from the room as though afraid that she might become what she was on Picasso’s decadent sketch.

“M. Proust, if you want real music, listen to Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky, the dear man, wasn’t too bright but he could orchestrate like Apollo.”

“The two greatest writers in the world,” said Joyce as he finished the last of the whiskey, “and all we can talk about is lumbago.”

“I was 10 when I first got asthma, as my mother was leaving my bedroom without kissing me as she had always done every day of my life – my memories of which go back to a glass of green tea she gave me on the day after my second birthday, a day of poignant memory because the mystery tree in our arbor bloomed for the first time in a century, worried that a mild catarrh she had noticed while I was eating my birthday cake might develop into a bronchial affliction, which she knew to be a family weakness – wheezes followed her departure from the room, though she did not hear them, the rustling of the leaves of the mystery tree obscured them, though I felt she should have heard them anyway since I certainly was aware of this terrible new manifestation, terrible as the green tea was delicious, invoking some primal memory of fear and delight which I still carry like a cross of diamonds driving me at once to both poles though I…”

Proust continued this sentence for at least another hour. Joyce had passed out at its beginning, done in by the whiskey and the green tea. Diaghilev ate both Joyce’s and Proust’s meat; he tried to get Stravinsky’s, but the composer had sufficiently recovered from his gray study to ward him off. Picasso was too busy inspecting everything in the room with his new glasses to eat or drink anything. I tried desperately to escape from this dinner of decline, but could find no exit, so I… The manuscript breaks off at this point leaving us to speculate how the affair ended and what its significance in art might be.

Originally published:

Kurtzman NA: The Paris Bulls. Lubbock Magazine (June):32-33, 1997.

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