THE YEAR OF READING PROUST: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose


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Proust is less the subject of Rose's pleasurable, rambling memoir than its guiding spirit, whose wisdom and worldview Rose invokes as she reviews the travails and satisfactions of a year in her life. A row with her Key West landlady involving potted palms and banana treees; hectic preparations for a dinner honoring a mystery guest (who turns out to be Salman Rushdie); her friend Annie Dillard's cancer scare; and her own mother's halting progress toward death--these and other events take biographer Rose (Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, 1989, etc.) into a Proustian blend of social gossip (mostly of literary Key West) and a remembrance of things in her own past. The passing of time, the attempt to transcend it (in collecting antiquities), the need to create something original before it is too late, and the immense difficulty of doing so, are among the novelist's themes that resonate for Rose. Most affecting is her newfound appreciation of the middle-class suburban 1950s childhood she had long reviled: ""I never 'understood' my childhood because I never understood what a happy childhood it was."" This encounter with her past culminates in a visit with her sister to their childhood home for the first time in 36 years. Unlike the fictional Marcel, who returns to Paris after a long absence and finds it much changed, Rose finds the house miraculously preserved, like a museum of her childhood, thus bringing no epiphany but merely the satisfaction of memories confirmed. Still, while there is much to savor here, there are disappointments, an occasional sense of incompleteness; we learn more, for instance, about the social hubbub over her dinner for Rushdie than we do about the writer himself. Perhaps the best part of the book is its opening chapter, in which Rose, having overcome her own inability to penetrate Proust, explains richly how one can do so, and why it is worthwhile.

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 1997
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Scribner