Two Memoirs, One Self-Involved, The Other, Self-Realized

The Year of Reading Proust , by Phyllis Rose. Scribner’s, 268 pages, $23.

Wait Till Next Year , by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, 261 pages, $25.

Phyllis Rose waited until she was in her 50’s to read Remembrance of Things Past . In her new memoir, The Year of Reading Proust , this professor of English at Wesleyan College excuses her delay by explaining that few people seem to have read the French masterpiece in its entirety, except for gay men whose love of Proust “was so intimate and treasured a part of their sexual identity that they did not seem to mind when a straight person did not share it.” Ms. Rose suggests there and elsewhere that for her, reading-and writing-are competitive sports. By her own admission, she envies the literary prizes of her Key West writer friends and worries about achieving her own literary immortality.

She clearly expects to earn points for daring to portray herself in an unflattering light. Here is somebody who, on the one hand, complains that her first husband was schmoozing the obstetrician while their newborn son was being rushed to the intensive-care unit, and then later describes herself arriving at the hospital room of her own mother (whom she thinks is dying), remembering a hair appointment and leaving to keep it. Ms. Rose boasts that in her middle-aged life, shopping has replaced eroticism, and she spends pages describing the search for a new car and having to settle for a Saab instead of her dream Mercedes.

Proust? Well, he flashes and wanes while Ms. Rose imitates his fascination with the quotidian by serving up the everyday banalities of her own life. Unfortunately, she leaves out one key ingredient: poetic leavening. She hobnobs with the likes of Annie Dillard, a writer with whom Ms. Rose has a competitive relationship; and with Robert Stone, who is described as coming undone at the prospect of assembling a dinner party of suitable literary heavy-hitters for a mystery guest who turns out to be Salman Rushdie. But the most egregious misstep in the book is when Ms. Rose breaks her “I” narrative stride to settle a score with Edmund White: “It’s tiresome and painful that you refuse to come to our house out of loyalty to ‘Hélène’ [the woman Ms. Rose’s husband left for her]. I’m through trying to prove that I’m not hurt by your behavior.” We also get a chapter on plant life in Key West as well as a long outline of the belletristic novel that Ms. Rose will one day write.

However, when the author-who wrote a brilliant book about Victorian writers called Parallel Lives -casts her seasoned eyes on Proust and the text of Remembrance of Things Past , she makes some wonderfully wry observations. She’s also astute enough to realize that in writing a memoir, she’s perhaps not quite in her true element. For, after telling the reader that she couldn’t wait to grow up and escape childhood, Ms. Rose observes, “So, I’m unlikely to get caught up in the search for a vanished reality that powers most reminiscences. I care more about trying to see the present for what it is. But there, too, I run into a problem. Can we see what is right before us, what we’re caught up in?”

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mesmerizing memoir suggests to me that the answer to Ms. Rose’s question is “probably not.” Powerfully telescopic, beautifully detailed, Wait Till Next Year unravels with painstaking care the mummifying binds of Ms. Goodwin’s own memory to reveal a world “happily governed by the dual calendars of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Catholic Church. But its transcendent force is also derived from painstaking interviews that the author-the award-winning writer of, among other books, No Ordinary Time -conducted with a cast of fully realized characters as she was writing the book.

As a small child, Ms. Goodwin, her two sisters and parents made the pilgrimage from urban Brooklyn to Rockville Center, L.I., converting to a suburban middle-class life in which the acquisition of any new appliance and the advent of television was experienced as rapture. From the outset, the author hints that certain dramatic events have already blighted the possibility of her family achieving an enduring idyll. For one thing, her father has lost his entire family because of illness and freak accidents, and her mother suffers from chronically poor health.

Almost immediately we find ourselves falling in love with our plucky, big-hearted narrator who, at the age of 6, clamors to accompany the local grocer to the produce markets at 3 A.M. A year later, she manages to sneak out of her house and make her way to the harrowing scene of a Long Island Rail Road train wreck with the idea of giving the final sacraments to the injured and dying passengers. She obsesses over every game played by the Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as the lives and performances of its team members, and the reader can’t help but share her enthusiasm.

Whether or not the Brooklyn Dodgers will ever win a World Series stands at the center of the memoir, becoming symbolic of the sense of great possibility that marked the postwar late 40’s and early 50’s, when the intimacy of neighborhood life was affected by what was happening on the world stage and public opinion was tidal. From early on, the author sets herself apart from her family and friends as someone bent on siphoning the truth from beneath the surface of social and political events, which, to her, seem increasingly glossed over or misinterpreted by the masses. Suspecting the Rosenbergs might have been victims of national hysteria, Ms. Goodwin describes “the insistent bleat and blare of horns,” motorists approving the execution on the day it occurred, and Ethel Rosenberg wearing a green dress with white polka dots, struggling against five jolts of electricity before finally dying.

This clinging to life is deeply meaningful to the author, who describes her own mother fighting to survive several long hospitalizations. Indeed, the marvel of this memoir is how public events are deftly linked to private ones. The description of the World Series of 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally win is brilliantly juxtaposed with the experience of Ms. Goodwin and her best friend Elaine grieving over the death of James Dean. And each Series game is filtered through the earphones of transistor radios in the schoolroom, bulletins of hits and outs, runs and double plays, relayed through hand gestures and facial expressions of children listening surreptitiously.

At the end of a book comes the most poignant moment of all, when the author, after the death of her mother, ascends to the attic to sort through papers in preparation for a dreaded move away from the house where she spent her childhood.

“I know this move won’t be easy on you, but I don’t see any other way,” says her father, who comes upon her in the attic. “I loved your mother so much. I still see her in every room.”

“That’s exactly why I want to stay,” Ms. Goodwin replies.

Here we can see exactly why she goes on to become a celebrated writer, but we also witness a luminescent marker of the end of an era, when ” … the street was no longer our common ground,” when “television had become an isolating force …” Wait Till Next Year manages to become an intimate portrait of a family as well as a keenly observed document of a specific era of American history.

Two Memoirs, One Self-Involved, The Other, Self-Realized