I 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…