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.