She Read to Us in the Afternoons:
A Life in Novels

By Kathleen Hill


We had begun, rather self-consciously, sitting side by side as usual on the sofa. But before long, as we gradually fell under the spell of words and silence, I found myself in a chair on the other side of the room, facing Diana across a distance. Perhaps we said the light would be better if I sat there, but the light had nothing to do with it. A listener needs room to be alone in the expanding world of the story. And a voice telling a story requires space if it is to assume the anonymity of a voice crying in the wilderness, requires at least the illusion of speaking beyond time and place. It must not be burdened too emphatically with individual history.

And yet, very soon, I found this to be impossible. What could I do when I heard myself reading in the voice my mother had used reading to me as a child, the voice, mimicking her, I had used to read to my own children? I heard the same intonations, the same pauses and emphases, the same strains of irrepressible sadness. Diana’s father had been born in the Warsaw ghetto, my mother’s grandmother had been born in lreland during the famine. Yet here was Diana, and here was I, sitting in an apartment on Claremont Avenue, each listening to Proust read in accents that were beyond our choosing, either hers or mine. And perhaps, for that reason, in a voice after all with its own share of anonymity, the voice of ancestors whose sorrows might find their unlikely but entirely fitting expression in the pages of Proust.