"For a long time I used to try to read Proust," recalls Phyllis Rose, evoking both the somnolent opening salvo of Remembrance of Things Past and her own resistance to that mighty, melancholic masterpiece. Happily, she did get around to it. And even better, she recorded her dogged progress through all seven installments--and her own, shall we say, parallel life--in The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time. The result is an irresistible hybrid of autobiography, rumination, and lit crit, in which the author puts one Proustian principle after another into action. Some of these efforts end up backfiring on Rose. For example, her attempt to tar a friend with the French novelist's paradoxical brush causes her some deep embarrassment:
Paradox always leads you to a sort of truth, for it gets at truth's many-sidedness. But the tone of what I wrote David, although it amused him, was not Proustian. There's a sweetness that comes with complex understanding, and I didn't have it. The bitterness of my sterility flowed into the style, creating of Annie, whom I sometimes loved, sometimes scorned, sometimes envied, sometimes resented, sometimes relished, and sometimes pitied, a creature of blanket unattractiveness and of myself uncomplicated malice.
Here, of course, the author is being hard on herself, articulating precisely the sort of complexity that she's supposed to be incapable of. The paradox might evoke a faint smile from Proust himself--who also might have relished the pinpoint social observation and relentless honesty of Rose's book. Whether she's recording a late-breaking entente between herself and her mother, or the details of a dinner party for blaspheming bad boy Salman Rushdie, or her own career disappointments, the author withholds nothing. At the same time, she delivers any number of big-picture truths, occasionally wrapping them in you-know-who's favorite sort of simile: "As at a big party, you approach people you haven't seen in a long time with benevolence and perhaps a little too much joy, fearing that you've forgotten how close you were, in a long friendship, you might approach your friend with a tentativeness and uncertainty unwarranted by the degree of affection you feel for her, but understandable in the light of human forgetfulness and the complexity of your particular exchanges." It's all here--generosity, mortification, high intelligence, and top-quality gossip, along with enough Proustian moments to last any reader at least a year. --James Marcus