Books: Wriding into the sunset

THE YEAR OF READING PROUST: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose Vintage pounds 7.99
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The Independent Culture
Phyllis Rose aspires in her A Memoir in Real Time "to write a book counter-conventional, paradoxical, and true to the lived experience of our times. But such a book would have to be completely non-narrative, a collection of recipes, phone numbers, e-mail, answering machine messages, jottings on notepads, TV Guide listings, tax returns, newspaper clippings, and reading lists." Thank goodness, The Year of Reading Proust is not that book. All that unstructured, stream-of-consciousness, undifferentiated flotsam and jetsam might be fun in theory, but in practice would make dreary reading. If you can imagine an intimate seminar on Proust given by an entertaining, candid, motherly and rather rambling academic and accompanied by several large glasses of wine, you'll get some idea of Rose's book.

Some people are suspicious of the memoir form, feeling that its promiscuous use has produced a lot of self-indulgent writing. But this memoir has some notable redeeming features. First, it really does make you want to read Proust, which in my view is a triumph ("For a long time," confides Rose herself, "Like a heavy car with a tiny engine, I charged up the hill again and again only to stall around page 50, somewhere within the exhausting story of young Marcel's getting to sleep one night in Combray.") Second, it is mercifully short. Third, Rose does not make any grandiose claims for the "literariness" of the memoir. In fact, her last chapter is devoted to her rueful admission of failure as a novelist (one more from this addictively quotable book: "I should have known I was in trouble when I heard myself describe [my] novel as a cross between Memoirs of Hadrian and Ragtime"). Like a good dinner guest, Rose works hard to amuse.

As a lecturer at Weslyan University, Rose seems to live, by British academic standards, an unimaginably luxurious life. She divides her time, as they say, between New York and Key West, Florida; when she's not having Salman Rushdie to dinner she's sipping cocktails and watching the sunset with her delightful French husband (number two) and buying rare prints from her favourite New York dealer. Clearly, she's a writer (pronounced "wrider"), but not as we know it. They have respect over there. And grants, and tenure, and wonderful wrider's retreats where they get to hang out for free and just create. All this free time and cooking with basil might grate, except that Rose is a charming companion. Alongside Proust she takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the significant mom- ents in her life (first marriage, giving birth, falling in love with the already-married Frenchman, mother's terminal illness, lump in breast), but it is reminiscence with a purpose: the old-fashioned one of the transmission of wisdom and insight. Rose would die rather than compare herself to Proust; but she is inspired by him. The close reading of her own life reveals truths for the rest of us. What nobler purpose can memoir-writing serve?