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 Prousts In Search of Lost Time as the basis for a sustained investigation into the power and significance of literature. Prousts 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.
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.
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 Iâm told I have to read something âŠ my anti-authority streak runs very deep.
As to the book itself, itâs a very curious mix of a self-help manual and literary biography. Proustâs 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 everythingâincluding much humor and reading between the linesâas 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 bookâs endâwhile I appreciate the originality and effort, overallâI 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 Userâs Manual, I was motivated to pick up a de Bottonâs 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.
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?)
Quote from one of Proustâs books, In âHow Proust Can Change Your Lifeâ by Alain de Botton
âEven the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.â
In âHow Proust Can Change Your Lifeâ 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 (âthe Summarize Proust Competitionâ). 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 âUn Amour de Swannâ a little novel in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and all that sort of thing. Originally drafted in a mere three volumes, the âRechercheâ 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 partyâone of the greatest scenes in all literature, by the wayâtakes 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. Iâve been avoiding re-reading Proust. More than 30 years later should I re-read him? My advice for those of you who havenât 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 intellectualityâit's a youthful workâit's still the best compass for getting across that ocean. De Bottonâs 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 Bottonâs book, full of Proustâs excerpts, proves that Iâm 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 âI donât think for myselfâ, I always like to refer them to this quote by Proust:
âThe mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgment of part of its independence. âWhat can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel for yourselfâ [âŠ] 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.â