The Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose

Year of Reading ProustI actually read The Year of Reading Proust (1997) by Phyllis Rose round about the time I read her book The Shelf, which I loved so much. Indeed, like The Shelf, I bought and read The Year of Reading Proust while I was in Washington DC in April, reluctant to part company with an author I’d so quickly learned to love.

Fast forward four months, and somehow I still haven’t written about this book. It’s a difficult book to write about. But it is extremely good and enjoyable, so I didn’t want to overlook it altogether.

Perhaps the main difficulty is that the book doesn’t pay much attention to Rose’s project. While The Shelf took the shelf of a library as a starting point for many tangents and explorations, it remained a fixed and vital point for the whole book – Rose kept returning to the books on that shelf, explaining them and framing her discussions through her readings of them. I expected more of the same from The Year of Reading Proust, but Proust makes surprisingly few appearances. Instead, it’s essentially what the subtitle says: ‘a memoir in real time’.

It was while reading the introduction that I cottoned on to what Rose was trying to do. She doesn’t explain her project; she talks about the hamburger she ordered when she heard that JFK had been killed. Now, I haven’t read any of À la recherche du temps perdu (which is where her experiment with Proust begins and ends, perhaps unsurprisingly – you probably weren’t expecting this to focus on his handful of other works). But I do know, of course, about the madeleine that kicks things off at the beginning of the first volume: Rose was doing the same thing with a hamburger.

From here, I learned the key to the whole book. Rose described how Proust’s writing meandered and interwove, taking events separately and creating a pattern from them; using mundane incidents to discover profundities, and taking introspection to a new level. Ambitiously, Rose attempts the same. From dealing with her mother’s serious illness to buying a vase, she documents her life over the course of a year. She discusses her neighbour’s trees more than she does the text she is reading, yet successfully demonstrates how coming to love Proust illuminates her own experiences.

Proust had shown me the underlying laws. Like the Marxist who boasts that if you really understand history you can predict it and sneers at those who, not understanding it, are condemned to repeat it, like the Freudian smug in the face of human aberration because he thinks he can explain what produced it, I felt privileged, exempt, suddenly the master of the life I was observing. I had been given a key, a free subscription to some hitherto locked-out cable channel which in front of my eyes lost its frustrating distortion and transformed itself from blurred, wavy, taffy-pull mystery shapes into a clear and enjoyable picture.

As it’s been quite a while since I read it, I don’t remember many of the details that Rose shares – and I suppose it is a hallmark of the type of book she’s written that I don’t remember them. They aren’t individually significant (to the reader at least). But what I do remember is how much I enjoyed the experience of seeing the year through Rose’s eyes, and the glimpses into what she thought of Proust. Though she doesn’t write about the novel in any great depth, she does convey how much she valued reading him – and how she broke through, after not particularly enjoying the beginning, into near besottedness. The Year of Reading Proust did what nothing else had hitherto done: made me want to try À la recherche du temps perdu at some point.

So, I didn’t love this book as much as I loved The Shelf, but it is an entirely different creature. If not quite the book-about-books that I was hoping for, it was a rather brilliant memoir – and a very ambitious one, in trying to echo what is considered one of the greatest ever literary works. Maybe it would have made more sense under a slightly different title, but I’ll forgive Rose that.

Even though The Year of Reading Proust wasn’t quite a book-about-books, it has helped confirm how dearly I love that category – so any suggestions for those are heartily welcomed…


8 thoughts on “The Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose

  • August 11, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    I might try this author with The Shelf, but I am not a Proust fan. However, have you ever read My Life in Middlemarch? It sounds like a similar type of book except that there are lots of references to Middlemarch.

    • August 13, 2015 at 9:06 pm

      I haven’t read that (and have never finished Middlemarch, actually) but I’m realising that the source material doesn’t matter; I love books and books regardless of what the books are!

  • August 11, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    I did read and loved Proust’s Swann’s Way but don’t think I will be reading the book you reviewed. My TBR stacks are large, of books my husband and I have purchased, and I want to read those first.

    • August 13, 2015 at 9:10 pm

      Very wise, Terra, but I will be surprised if you manage to keep to it entirely ;)

  • August 11, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    As a French girl, I would say, read Proust before reading secondary sources about Proust! But I don’tknow what he looks like in English and which translations there are and which is best. Proust is one of the main writers that have influenced my life. I read him (“Swann’s Way”) when I was ten. I did not understand much but the writing, the style, the tone and his voice were clearly with me after a few pages and they have remained. I remember reading his depiction of wild roses and going outside in the garden, finding wild roses and seeing them for the first time.

    At the same time, my mother gave me “To the Lighthouse” in French and the translation had been made by Marguerite Yourcenar. That was my second epiphany in my tenth year. (Yes, my family is slightly quaint when it comes to reading and the age you are when you are given a book, but these have given me the taste for reading!).

    Proust and Virginia Woolf go hand in hand in my mind’s eye. And I would ladly read this memoir you are blogging about. And the other one about books…

    By the way, I am a blogger as well – a rather new one – and I blog in English even if I am French. My last entry this Sunday was about how I discovered Trollope. Here is the link if you would like to have a look at it:

    • August 13, 2015 at 9:17 pm

      Well, this is a very persuasive argument! Anything that goes hand-in-hand with Virginia Woolf is obviously going to be a good place for me to go.

  • August 12, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Oh yes – *do* read Proust. Although I’ve only read the first two books so far, I do want to read the rest. It’s not always easy but definitely worth it!

    • August 13, 2015 at 9:19 pm

      I’m now being super fussy and waiting until I find a beautiful set of the whole series…

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: