77 North Washington Street

Phyllis Rose

"LITERATURE gives us helps," Edmund Wilson wrote. The computer scientist Marvin Minsky had the same idea when he once likened literature to "an expert system on all the ways people can screw up in life." In her delightfully original new book, from which comes the essay titled "The Music of Silence" in this issue, Phyllis Rose tells how she invited Marcel Proust into her life as a source of sage counsel on all things human.

Reflecting on the nature of pleasure, she finds that Proust got there first: "Pleasure is like photography. What we take, in the presence of a beloved object, is merely a negative which we develop later, when we are back at home, and have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom the entrance to which is barred from us so long as we are with other people." Trying to help her son, who is having trouble with a "downstairs neighbor, who constantly and unreasonably complained about noise," she consults Proust. "Neurotics, Proust counselled, are irritated at the slightest provocation by inoffensive enemies, but as soon as anyone takes the offensive against them, they become meek." She passes the advice on to her son, who has been treating the neighbor with abashed courtesy, and he follows it. The complaining ceases. Proust is proving to be a big help.

With Proust's example stirring her to emulation, Rose examines her own past as daughter, friend, lover, wife, mother, and writer. With Proust's eyes she sees turnings in her life anew. Thus, thinking about why her affair with a man who scorned pop culture (which she loved) ended, she finds that Proust perfectly captured the hopelessness of the relationship. "And ... if I found Saint-Loup a trifle earnest, he could not understand why I was not more earnest still. Never judging anything except by its intellectual weightiness, never perceiving the magic appeal of the imagination that I found in things which he condemned as frivolous, he was astonished that I -- to whom he imagined himself to be so utterly inferior -- could take any interest in them."

Phyllis Rose is a distinguished critic and biographer. Among her books are a critical biography of Virginia Woolf, which was a National Book Award finalist; a portrait of Victorian marriages, and a life of Josephine Baker,


Photograph by Marion Ettlinger

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 280, No. 4; page 8.

Presented by

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.


Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."


The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands


'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.


Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas


The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In