Draws from the writings of turn-of-the-century French novelist and critic Marcel Proust to provide lessons on how best to live life, discussing topics such as expressing emotions, being happy in love, developing good friendships, and the use of time.
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.
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?)