The starting point of How Proust can change your Life is that a great novel can be nothing less than life-transforming. This is an unusual claim: our education system, while stressing that novels are highly worthwhile, rarely investigates why this is so. How Proust can change your Life takes Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time as the basis for a sustained investigation into the power and significance of literature. Proust's novel, almost a byword for obscurity and irrelevance, emerges as an invaluable source of insight into the workings of love, society, art and the meaning of existence.The book reveals Proust's thoughts on how to revive a relationship, choose a good doctor, enjoy a holiday, make friends and respond to insult. A vivid portrait of the eccentric yet deeply sympathetic author is built up out of extracts from his letters, essays and fiction and is combined with a commentary on the power of literature to change our lives. A self-help book like few others.
De Botton is a good writer in his own way, and knows how to present a good book. There are illustrations aplenty, a judicious use of white space, and short paragraphs on every page. De Botton gets out of the way wherever he can, showing Proust through the writer's own words, elaborating when necessary or when it might further interest the reader.
All in all a balanced and useful little book, like a fresh madeleine that welcomes you into the day.
It is always hard for a book to live up to years of hype and praise. And while I appreciated reading suggestions, I always find myself physically cringing when I’m told I have to read something … my anti-authority streak runs very deep.
As to the book itself, it’s a very curious mix of a self-help manual and literary biography. Proust’s fiction, essays, letters, and his life are incorporated, to yield advice on living, dating, being a good host, vacationing, even including advice to never sleep with someone on the first date. Yes, it is a little of everything—including much humor and reading between the lines—as de Botton mines Marcel Proust extensive writings to find his relevance to our modern times.
I was amused, edified, educated, and entertained, but by the book’s end—while I appreciate the originality and effort, overall—I was not a good audience. After reading the book, I thought motivation and inspiration might visit me, but still Volume One of In Search of Lost Time sits unread on my overcrowded shelf of unread books. Between this book and another of his titles, The News: A User’s Manual, I was motivated to pick up a de Botton’s novel, The Course of Love, which I found to be a clever combination of a love story and a self-help manual. While that combination sounds like a bad joke, it worked, but I refuse to tell you that you have to read it.
In the end, my motto remains, No book before its time.
Now that I have read it I must say it wasn't what I expected. I expected it to be a book about how reading Proust would change my life or maybe how the experience of reading Proust would do so. Instead it is structured as I would expect a self-help book to be structured. I enjoyed many of the biographical bits on Proust's life and the excerpts from his writings and letters but it doesn't leave me chomping at the bit to pick up Swann's Way.
Maybe it was my error to read this book as a motivator to give Swann's Way another go this year (though the short bit at the end about Virginia Woolf did a little bit). Regardless of my misunderstanding/misconception of the purpose of this book it was still pretty solid and entertaining. Do I feel that Proust has changed my life through this book? No, I don't, but I do feel that it is possible that In Search of Lost Time can if I ever get around to starting it again.
Quote from one of Proust’s books, In “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton
“Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”
In “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton
I read Proust's masterpiece back in the 80s when I was attending the British Council. I still remember all too well one particular hilariously snippy Monty Python sketch (“the Summarize Proust Competition”). Back in the day, I too wanted to be able to rub elbows with the elite intellectuals who mocked Proust, so I picked up the first of three volumes (the weighty Moncrieff editions) and got started. The first few pages were tough going, but soon I became mesmerized, then I fell in love, and by the end of the summer I was tucking flowers into the plackets of my trousers and wearing bows in my shirts. Oh childhood! Swann's Way is the swiftest, plottiest volume in the monster, with “Un Amour de Swann” a little novel in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and all that sort of thing. Originally drafted in a mere three volumes, the “Recherche” grew as Proust re-Proustified the later volumes while waiting for publication; many readers have wished that that long mini-book could be recovered. The pace picks up again in the last volume, which the author's death prevented him from reworking, so that a dinner party—one of the greatest scenes in all literature, by the way—takes only a few hundred pages to describe, what with the jolts of consciousness with which Proust bracketed it, while the first half of the volume is impossibly brilliant about the first World War without ever leaving Paris. It's best to have time for such idleness, best to be so besotted with the possibilities of literature that you love rather than loathe the lengthiness; which is to say that you need to encounter Proust at the right time of your life and possibly even the right place, so that Proust's times and places become yours. I’ve been avoiding re-reading Proust. More than 30 years later should I re-read him? My advice for those of you who haven’t read it yet. I hope that luck will be yours; without it, the task may prove impossible. If you find yourself fatally at a loss to know what and why you're reading his work, check out Samuel Beckett's slim monograph; for all its showy intellectuality—it's a youthful work—it's still the best compass for getting across that ocean. De Botton’s attempt is not the best way to go about it. I also recommend the Proust Screenplay by Harold Pinter, which accomplishes the amazing feat of boiling the whole thing down into a 90-minute screenplay without losing any of the flavour. When I felt lost at the beginning of my first reading of Pinter's work, revealed the whole structure to me and enabled me to carry on. Reading De Botton’s book, full of Proust’s excerpts, proves that I’m still finding reading Proust a strangely claustrophobic experience. I got the overwhelming impression of a man who observes, dissects and minutely describes life, but perhaps forgets to live it? As a reader, I feel the novel takes me over. There is no room for separate interpretation or thought. Proust leaves no margin for error. It's a bit like the difference between watching butterflies fluttering in a meadow and having them pinned and labelled, dead, on a board for inspection.
When someone asks me why I read so much, and why “I don’t think for myself”, I always like to refer them to this quote by Proust:
‘The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgment of part of its independence. “What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel for yourself” […] There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has left. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with this.’
And well.... this book 1) makes it so I don't want to read him, and 2) makes it so I don't much care for anything about Proust or want to learn about him.
The other reason I picked this up was Botton himself. He seems like a reasonably intelligent person in the articles, interviews, speeches, and youtube videos I've seen of him..... but through this book, he comes off very much like the way he describes Proust. ....which is not good at all.
Flat out, the book does serve to do one thing for you -- to remind you not to live a life reminiscent of Proust's, but to read Proust (if you have the time, and don't care that he can write a sentence that is literally 14 lines long).
Sorry, I value my time far too much for this, for Botton's pompous outlook on things, for Proust's life, and definitely not to read the works of Proust; especially the seven volumes of 'In Search of Lost Time'. (Seems aptly named doesn't it?)
I was interested in reading it after some years ago reading all of In Search of Lost Time. He draws quite a bit from Proust's letters and essays separate from his novels, which I think helped me to understand why certain themes were so prominent. For me, the best chapter was the one entitled "How to Open Your Eyes" which makes sense of the painstaking descriptions of scene, his fascination with artists and art critics such as Ruskin, and his attraction to portrayals of the most mundane but telling details to illuminate an aspect of character. He describes the main characters in In Search of Lost Time in broad strokes and does a pretty good job of explaining what led the author to put them through their trials and triumphs by connecting their stories to the esthetic and moral obsessions he had. You begin to understand what made Proust such a fussy eccentric to some extent by following the arguments he makes through to their conclusions. If friendship and honesty are fundamentally conflicting ideals, how does a person function in society?
I enjoyed reading this and thinking about those books of Proust I read. I am not certain whether this would be a really good introduction to Proust for someone coming to them for the first time, though, because he doesn't really address the extreme bulkiness of the series of books and say whether it was necessary or desirable. I actually don't recall whether he says anything about incidents in the last few books so it would be hard to know for certain whether he's actually read past Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way himself. But clearly it would have been a less inspiring title to have this be called "How the First Two Books of Proust's Can Change Your Life."
Initially, I was not impressed. I thought it was superficial. Boton doesn't even mention the idea that Albertine's model in real life was the chauffeur Alfredo Agostinelli.....but as I got deeper into the book....i became much more engrossed and impressed. Boton has managed to tease out some of the real essence there. A dangerous move because he suggests the there are certain limitations to reading that Proust highlights: "what can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel it for yourself"........."Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it". So we have Boton ...with his own book ....trying to skirt around these sentiments. In fact he warns us aginst a range of symptoms identified in the over-reverent, over-reliant reader:
1. That we mistake writers for oracles....Proust was asked for advice on all sorts of topics which he was totally unqualified to speak about: "Why would an ability to write "In Search of Lost time" in any way indicate an aptitude for advising recently dismissed white-collar workers on their career?"
2. That we will be unable to write after reading a good book: Proust might have expressed many things well , but independent thought and the history of the novel had not come to a halt with him. His book did not have to be followed by silence"....and of course, it was not.
3. That we become artistic idolaters. .......combining a literal reverence for object depicted in art with a neglect of the spirit of the art. Becoming attached to a part of the countryside depicted by a great painter, and mistake this for an appreciation of the painter.
4. That we will be tempted to invest in a copy of La Cuisine Retrouve......and think by eating the food described by Proust ...we have discovered the spirit in which the food was considered. (It's like point 3, above).
5. That we will be tempted to visit Illiers-Combray. In fact the village of Illiers has cashed in on Proust by adding Combray to their name. Yes, Proust did stay there for a few years and clearly modelled Combray on this village. but ....same point as in 3, above....if you concentrate on Villiers-Combray....you lose Proust's manner of treating it. Combray could be any one of many villages. The beauty which Proust revealed there could be present, latent. in almost any town , if only we made the effort to consider it in a Proustian way". A genuine homage to Proust would be to look at OUR world through HIS eyes, not to look at HIS world through OUR eyes.."
And what is this Proustian way?......"It's devoting attention to noticing the faint yet vital tremors" in people...in life..."with an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able .....to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own , yet coud not have formatted on our own." Putting it more bluntly it's noticing the details.
And it is to: "respond to the unexpected and hurtful behaviour of others ..with something more than a wipe of the glasses, to see it as a chance to expand our understanding".
Proust contends the good writing cuts new channels: ..they begin to write well only on condition that they are original , that they create their own language."
Boton can't help himself: he reflects the philosophical conundrum elaborated by Bertram Russell in his theory of descriptions: "the the morning star is the evening star" or , more apposite: "Scott is the author of Waverly" ..when he talks about using one word for the author of "In search of lost time" (Proust) and the author of "the Strong Virgins" (Prevost)......the public frequently confused the two writers but it seems to really be a sly reference to the theory of descriptions. (It doesn't quite work because, I guess, the one word he is referring to is "author".
With impressionist painting Proust argues that in every successful work of art there is an ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.
Apparently Proust had many good friends ....friends who wrote powerful tributes to him after his death yet there was clearly an ability in Proust to see through friendships to the insincerity apparent in every friendship. "Though it had the power to make him both a better more loyal, more charming friend, AND a more honest, profound and unsentimental thinker".
And on opening one's eyes...we should not deny the bread on the sideboard a place in our conception of beauty and we should restrain our expectations when introduced to great aristocrats.
And Proust on love. He seems to think that the supreme feeling of love is when the loved one is just out of reach...unattainable. And once attained, the desire recedes or is eliminated. I'm not sure that Marcel was really the best person to write about love.Sure he had lots of intense feelings ...and most of Sodom and Gommorah is consumed with these feelings (mainly jealousy) but he never really sustained a loving relationship. Yet others seem to have been able to do this. Are they all wrong/misguided? Or is Marcel missing something from his experience. of life? I think the latter.
Overall, quite a fascinating book and well worth re-reading. I give it 4.5 stars.