Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Arthur Phillips

By posted at 4:55 am on December 4, 2007 5

Arthur Phillips is the bestselling author of The Egyptologist and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His most recent novel, Angelica, comes out in paperback in February.

I admit to having bought a book for its cover. For years I had seen the four spines of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time lined up on bookstore shelves and admired them, wished the spines – which together form a Poussin painting – were up on my own. And so I bought the first book, dove in for no reason except coveting the covering, without having any idea what I was about to read.

I emerged from the fourth volume six months later, having read nothing but Powell in the intervening time, and having completed one of the great reading experiences of my life, truly distraught that it was over.

Pretentious claim, for which I apologize, but here it is: a few years earlier, I read the whole damn In Search of Lost Time (or whatever you want to call it), and the payoff at its end, after all the toil and pleasure, is no more powerful than a similar payoff at the end of Powell. You finish both with the sensation of having spent a long lifetime at the side of the narrator. You have the same feeling of nostalgia, profundity, passing years, lives led and finished, the power of a master of letters guiding you to the illusion of lived experience.

That said, Powell is also funny, really funny, which is a claim I do not think can be made for Proust without straining something – credulity or a groin muscle.

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5 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Arthur Phillips”

  1. Levi Stahl
    at 7:51 am on December 4, 2007

    I suppose I could be accused of a conflict of interest, since my employer is the American publisher of Dance, but Powell's novel has been my favorite book since long before I worked there, and I'm always excited to see it finding new readers.

    Unforgettable characters, real insight into people, and humor manages to be both subtle and laugh-out-loud hilarious. What more can a reader ask for? I have to actively prevent myself from rereading it every winter.

  2. Lee
    at 8:16 am on December 4, 2007

    I'm not familiar with Powell, but I disagree that Proust is not funny. There is real mordant wit in the way he captures – and skewers – many of his characters.

  3. Language
    at 10:57 am on December 4, 2007

    I agree with Lee. I haven't read Powell (though you've certainly made me want to), but Proust can be laugh-out-loud funny — I've been reading him to my wife in the evenings, and that was one of our big surprises. We expected psychological insight, but not yuks.

  4. Levi Stahl
    at 11:03 am on December 4, 2007

    I have to agree with those who say Proust is funny. I recently was discussing with a friend how the scene at the end of The Guermantes Way where Swann reveals his impending death almost made me cry when I reread it recently; what's more amazing is that it also made me laugh. Now that's an achivement.

  5. Edan
    at 11:24 am on December 4, 2007

    I too have always admired those Powell spines!

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