I recently finished Phyllis Rose’s book The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, and I felt ambivalently about it the whole way through. Have you had the experience of enjoying not liking something, or going back and forth about it? I felt that way about this book. I considered quitting after the first couple of chapters, which didn’t work for me, but I stuck with it when the topics Rose was covering became more interesting, and from there on out, I found myself both moving quickly through it with a certain amount of pleasure and thinking the whole time about how mildly annoying the book is.
On the positive side, Rose is a good storyteller, and I liked the way she wrote about herself and her life honestly, sometimes telling things about herself that weren’t flattering. She’s a good personal essayist. She also knows tons of writers and has some good gossip about them; for example, she writes about her long-time friendship with Annie Dillard that’s full of complications and ups and downs. It’s quite fun to hear about, say, a dinner party she held for Salman Rushdie.
However, if you are picking this book up to read about Proust, you will most likely be disappointed. In fact, I don’t think I did this book justice, because I went into it thinking it was one thing and it took me a long time to figure out it’s actually something else. I like reading memoir/essay type books, however, so I adjusted my expectations and found some pleasure in it. In her first chapter, she describes her project of reading Proust in a year, discussing what the experience was like and giving her impressions of the novel. Subsequent chapters begin with a quotation from Proust and then tell a story from Rose’s experiences that relate to the quotation. She integrates brief discussions of Proust into the chapters to flesh out the point she’s making. Her chapters cover such things as her history with television, her passion for collecting, her first marriage, her struggles trying to write a novel, and battles with her neighbors over landscaping. She can frequently be entertaining, especially in the chapters on sex and relationships, and she captures her academic, literary world quite well.
But her descriptions of this world — a world where well-known writers hang out in Key West and Salman Rushdie drops in for dinner parties — annoyed me too, and my annoyance stems from class issues, I think. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by this story of a literary, academic, and social insider, someone who has lots of famous friends and what appears to be an enviable academic and economic position; she taught at Wesleyan for many years and moves back and forth between Connecticut and Florida, and she seems to have plenty of time with which to pursue her writing projects and personal interests. It sounds like a life many would envy. On the other hand, I wondered why I should care about the details of her life, about her struggles with this and that, about her fights with Annie Dillard, about her difficulty writing a novel. It’s not that I only want to read memoirs of people who have led particularly hard lives, but I wondered, sometimes, whether Rose had really done enough to make me care about her. Why devote my time to reading her story? Where, exactly, does the interest for a general reader lie?
I suppose, ultimately, the book felt a little self-indulgent to me. I feel harsh for saying this, and I’m struggling to find the right words to capture my reaction. I think that it’s a very personal reaction — I’m not sure I like Rose and therefore I’m not easily going to like her memoirs. Can you enjoy reading the memoirs of someone you don’t like? I suppose so, but it would take a different kind of writer than Rose.
So, if you are considering reading this book, please don’t take my negativity too seriously; you might like the book much better than I did.