The Year of Reading Proust

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.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “The Year of Reading Proust

  1. hepzibah

    I thought this was a very honest review and that’s what is great about it, its sad that we can’t love every book we read, isn’t it?

    But i know what you were talking about in the beginning, for me that annoying book would have to be THE American (i apologize if i am offending anyone)– right now, at this time in my life, it was just not the time to read something like that.

    And yes that wonderful little book adds color to my shelves🙂

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  2. Yaeli

    I had some similar feelings about “Reading Lolita in Teheran”, which was more about the author’s life and feelings than about the novels. Not that this was a bad thing in itself, but because I had thought prior to reading the book that it would be predominantly a treatment of Nabokov’s masterpiece (he’s one of my favourite authors) I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. I get the impression from your review though that something that irked you was the way the author seems to have used Proust as a “hook” for a narrative that centres on showcasing (a nice way of saying “bragging about”?) herself and her privileged lifestyle.

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  3. I think you’re absolutely right to be completely honest, Dorothy. I enjoyed the book, but then I don’t like reading memoirs about people who have suffered terrible hardships. I just feel sad and troubled. But these differences are fine and perfectly natural – it would be so dull if we all only liked the same things!

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  4. SFP

    I read this one several years ago and really remember nothing about it (she didn’t have a pug, did she? I read another memoir about a woman with pugs about the same time–I have the feeling that all the books I read for a time were crawling with pugs, all shedding like little buffaloes). It certainly didn’t lead me to actually reading Proust or appreciating Proust. It was just another memoir with a hook.

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  5. Dark Orpheus

    I actually remember picking up Phyllis Rose’s book from the library and scanning through it. I was under the impression it would be about Proust, or at least her thoughts on Proust’s epic.

    But I put it right back when I realise it was more about her life than Proust. I think the reason I did not give it a chance was because it felt like Bridget Jones trying to write about reading Proust .

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  6. Hepzibah — it is sad that we can’t love everything we read, definitely, and yet, sometimes I rather like disliking things. I suppose it’s mean spirited of me, but … there you go.

    Yaeli — you’re right in your guess that I was bothered by the way she uses Proust to talk about herself — and I think I’m being unfair to her when I say that, because the project itself isn’t a bad one, I just didn’t like the way she executed it, and, mostly, I found myself resenting the way she described her life. But I’m not sure that resentment was her fault at all! It says more about me.

    Litlove — well, I did seriously consider dropping it, but I did find some enjoyment in it too — she can tell a story well and the relationship parts got me. So it wasn’t an entirely bad experience! But you’re right that we can’t and shouldn’t have the same taste or things would get dull.

    Susan — no pugs in this one! I think someone who was looking for a memoir would have liked it better than someone looking for commentary on Proust. Perhaps she should have had a different title?

    Dark Orpheus — it’s probably good you didn’t give it a try — I can see you wouldn’t have gotten along with it very well!

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  7. Too bad the book didn’t get any better. Now I don’t feel guilty for not getting past the first chapter. Maybe she shouldn’t have put Proust in the title. Or maybe she needs pugs “shedding like little buffaloes” as Susan put it. I’m sure that would have perked things up, especially if they attacked Rushdie or she sent them after Dillard to chase her from the property🙂

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  8. SFP

    It was another memoir, Clara by Margo Kaufman, that was about pugs. I just looked it up on Amazon.

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  9. Since it was a memoir about her year reading Proust did it mirror in any way what you felt when you read the books as well? Or was she on such tangents that nothing compared? I’v struggled with books, too, sometimes glad I stuck with them when they got better towards the end, and sometimes just plain happy I could turn the last page. I don’t really like that sort of self indugent writing eiher–I’ve had that experience with travel books and I’ve given up on them rather than keep hearing how wonderful the author is–I hope that doesn’t sound terrible!

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