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Originally published Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 5:11 AM

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‘Sidney and Violet’: inside a charmed literary circle

Stephen Klaidman’s “Sidney and Violet” recounts the lives of Sidney and Violet Schiff, a British couple whose inner circle included Marcel Proust, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Sidney 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

Like moths to the light, the great writers of the early 20th century seemed drawn to Sydney and Violet Schiff’s orbit. A well-off couple who settled in a posh London neighborhood after marrying in 1911 (his second marriage, her first), the Schiffs were devoted to the arts: he as a writer, she as a musician and passionate reader and editor.

Into their circle came Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley; on the perimeter of their acquaintance were Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and Igor Stravinsky, among others. Everyone who was anyone, it seemed, found their way to the Schiffs’ table, whether they were fond of the couple or not. (Bloomsbury figure David Garnett once described Sydney as “a rich Austrian with the acquired manners of an actor playing an English colonel.”)

This little-known couple would seem to be fodder for a delicious literary biography — but unfortunately, Stephen Klaidman’s “Sydney and Violet” can’t seem to make them come alive. The author is hampered by a lack of documentation of Sydney and Violet’s early lives, by his own sometimes awkward writing (the word “bitching” to describe a wife’s complaints; occasional wanderings into first person), and by something which becomes increasingly clear as the book proceeds: The Schiffs were simply not as interesting as their dinner guests, which may explain why this is the first attempt at their biography.

Nonetheless, there are pleasures to be had in “Sydney and Violet,” particularly for anyone fond of literary gossip. A long chapter describes the Schiffs’ friendship with Proust, which unfolded almost entirely through letters, an art form lost today. And there’s a delicious description of a 1922 gala evening that included Joyce (who “did not own evening clothes, so came wrapped in an alcoholic fog to insulate him from any embarrassment from lack of proper dress”), a fur-coated Proust, and Stravinsky, on a hot May night in Paris. That remarkable trio jumps off the page; the Schiffs remain behind, in the shadows.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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