Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2016

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your LifeHow Proust Can Change Your Life is another book that’s been languishing too long on the NF TBR and rediscovered in the annual Tidy the Bookshelves marathon chez moi.   Did I buy it back in 1998 when this edition was published, barely a year after its debut?  It must have been a bestseller, (and it claims to be so on the front cover) which is interesting because, well,  we know that not a lot of people have actually read Proust.  I certainly hadn’t back in 1998… I didn’t actually read Proust until the Penguin translation came out and I read the entire thing over about eighteen months in 2004-5, twenty minutes a day on the exercise bike before I went to work.  It took me ages to read, yes, because it’s long, but also because I used to drift off into Proustian reveries (which is not a bad way to stave off the tedium of riding an exercise bike).

#MemoryStirring, (Oh… that’s not entirely true.  I had read Book 1, Swann’s Way, long before that, Moncrieff’s translation, but I didn’t have the others and never got round to buying them.  I was probably too young for Proust back then.)

Anyway…

Do you need to have read Proust to enjoy Alain de Botton’s book?  It seems not from my readerly friends’ thoughts at Goodreads… like many other readers they (mostly) loved this book whether they’d read Proust or not.  I think it enhances what de Botton has to say when Proust has become a part of your life but de Botton writes with such wit and geniality that pretentiousness is out of the question.

Philosophers are at their most useful when they guide us towards thinking about how to live our lives.  In How Proust Can Change Your Life de Botton is on about taking time to savour life, using Proust’s example of noticing everything and according it proper attention.  Savouring life is what people do when they think they have a finite time to live, but de Botton and Proust tell us not to wait for that, but to savour life in the here and now.  Smell the roses, taste the Madeleines.

(#Digression I’ve said this before, and the whole world disagrees with me so you should probably ignore me, but IMO the self-indulgence of Knausgaard – who is said to be Norway’s Proust – is nothing like Proustian self-awareness).

In Chapter One, de Botton introduces his theme and his inspiration, Proust’s response to a scenario posted in the French journal L’intransigeant:

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die just as you say.  Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it – our life – hides from us, made invisible by our laziness, which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X., making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today.  It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening. (p. 5)

Dear Proust… he is, as de Botton points out, somewhat disingenuous in this response, because (1) he spent his days in bed and hadn’t been near the Louvre for a decade; (2) he was gay and not at all likely to throw himself at the feet of any girl; and (3) there was no chance of him bestirring himself to go to India, see (1).  The tragedy is that only four months after telling the readers of L’intransigeant to seize the day, Proust was dead, aged fifty-one.  But fortunately for us he had seized the days he’d had to write his monumental work, the central theme of which is a search for the causes behind the dissipation and loss of time. 

(#Digression BTW De Botton and his publishers have failed to #NameTheTranslator so I hope I’m not hurting the feelings of any living translator when I say that I think this is a rather clumsy effort and that both De Botton and Proust deserve better in this book).

Chapter Two is called ‘How to read for yourself’, and after a droll recount of the reasons why Proust the author was a disappointment to his father Proust the eminent doctor, de Botton explores the author’s ambition that he wished he could be sure of doing with [his] books as much as [his] father did for the sick.   In a manifesto for reading, De Botton argues that he did:

  • that literature enables us to feel at home everywhere because we can recognise all sorts of people instead being limited to our own provincial experiences;
  • that literature is a cure for loneliness, confirming the essential normality of thoughts or feelings unmentioned in our immediate environment; and
  • that authors put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated as our own.

(Exactly as I am doing now, in this review, eh?)

Chapter Three is called ‘How to take your time’.   Well, if you have made your way through Proust you will laugh out loud at the way de Botton pokes fun at the length of Proust’s novel, and the bewilderment of his publishers.  He alludes to that hilarious Monty Python sketch featuring the All-England Summarise Proust Competition as an exemplar of the belief that Proust can be summarised…

But, hey, if Proust had a slogan it was n’allez pas trop vite.  Don’t go too quickly.  Don’t let yourself be misled by newspaper headlines which condense real human experience into distortions of what life is really about.  And if there really is no time because you are busy doing something that’s not really so very important, well, don’t delude yourself with feelings of self-satisfaction.

The ensuing chapters are a delight to read.  As one of the reviewers at Goodreads says, this book is at once a piece of literary criticism and a self-help book, and at the same time neither of those.  So the remaining chapter headings are like those you’d see in a self-help manual:

  • How to suffer successfully
  • How to express your emotions
  • How to be a good friend
  • How to open your eyes
  • How to be happy in love
  • How to put books down.

But De Botton’s style is not earnest or didactic as many self-help books are, and I would say that the book is more a work of light-hearted philosophy which draws on a perceptive analysis of Proustian ideas about how to live a good life.  Sure, he tells us things we already know, such as the idea that it’s easier to make friends if you listen to what’s interesting to them rather than blather on about what’s interesting to you, but he says it in such a refreshing way that it seems new.

For those of us who are booklovers, the advice in the last chapter is particularly apt.  He warns us against becoming overreverent, overreliant readers, listing these symptoms of the condition:

  • Symptom no 1: That we mistake writers for oracles.  (We ask writers for advice on all sorts of irrelevant matters that they are not competent to advise on).
  • Symptom no 2: That we will be unable to write after reading a good book (Virginia Woolf suffered from this after reading Proust, she thought she he would both influence [her] and make [her] out of temper with every sentence of [her] own.
  • Symptom no 3: That we become artistic idolaters, (revering writers for all the wrong reasons).
  • Symptom no 4: [my favourite] That we will be tempted to invest in a copy of La Cuisine Retrouvée (a recipe book reproducing the food described and eaten in Proust.)
  • Symptom no 5:  That we will be tempted to visit Illiers-Combray.   As an enthusiast of literary pilgrimages (there are 27 on my travel blog) *chuckle* I am at risk of this one.

De Botton says

That there is no greater homage we could pay Proust than to end up passing the same verdict on him as he passed on Ruskin, namely, that for all its qualities, his work must eventually also prove silly, maniacal, constraining , false and ridiculous to those who spend too long on it.

To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement.  Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.

Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside. (p. 215)

Irreverent, tongue-in-cheek funny and wise too, How Proust Can Change Your Life is a terrific book.   I’ll be re-reading this one, from time to time…

Author: Alain De Botton
Title: How Proust Can Change Your Life
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 1998
ISBN: 9780330354912
Source: Personal library, no idea now where I bought it from.

Available from Fishpond: How Proust Can Change Your Life


Responses

  1. I love the sound of this. I’ll look into it in French, of course.
    I think I have symptom 5 too.

    • I think Symptom 5 is an okay symptom to have :)

  2. I read this before I embarked on Good Ship Proust. Together with Michael Foley’s ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ it encouraged me to get started with ISOLT.

    I’m glad you enjoyed de Botton. I was going to re-read it after ISOLT but didn’t in the end.

    • I don’t know Embracing the Ordinary. Have you reviewed it?

      • I didn’t review it but I enjoyed reading it. Foley uses examples from literature, mostly Joyce & Proust, to help us appreciate everyday life.

        • Then I must find it and read it too. Because of Joyce, of course.
          De Botton tells us that Joyce and Proust met. But they had nothing much to say to each other, exacerbated by language difficulties. So De Botton imagines what they might have said, which is delicious!

          • He! He! I have a copy of ‘A Night at the Majestic’ here that’s about that meeting. Another one for your TBR list?

            • I just looked that up at Goodreads. It looks enticing…

  3. Excellent post and I really ought to read this – I’ve got as far as the first two books but finding the time to get back to the rest has been difficult. Thanks for reminding me of the brilliance of Python, too!

    • It seems to me that Pythonesque commentaries on life are often absurdly apt – and a natural link to anything philosophical…

  4. Great post – and that Monty Python sketch is hilarious! I’ve recently finished volume 2 of ISOLT, and have Guermantes Way ready to start soon. I feel like Proust has taught me the value of reading slowly, and when I finish the last volume I’ll probably just start it all over again, as there’s so much in there – not to mention the beautiful prose. I think de Botton does make some interesting points, but I don’t understand people reading it without reading Proust – what’s the point of that?

    • That’s a very good question indeed. Why do/don’t people read Proust? It is a ‘sanctified’ book in the canon of literary greats, and reading it is – no matter how much we may not wish to be pretentious – an act that doesn’t apply to reading most other books. Books in that sanctified category – elevated because of their length or how challenging they are and thus by the limited number of people who’ve read them – would include, for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses (and yet, strangely, not Finnegans Wake); David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; and War and Peace by Tolstoy. On the one hand readers like to join the exclusive club of those who’ve read them because they think there is some special feeling to be had, or some unique penetrating insight to imbue – and on the other they are intimidated by the fear that they may not understand, or not like, or worst of all, not finish the book, and this would make them feel excluded from something special. (I suppose there may be some who read it because they do want to be pretentious, but I don’t know anybody like that).
      So, maybe, and I’m just theorising, given that Proust is in this intellectual Mt Everest category, people read De Botton’s book as a sort of preparatory act, enabling them to get to know Proust a bit so that they understand him better as they go along? So they know what to look for and don’t miss it when it comes along?
      Or, given that De Botton is now a well-known philosopher who writes everyday philosophy in an everyday way (like Bertrand Russell did) people are attracted by his name, not Proust’s?

  5. I suffer from a chronic need to make literary pilgrimages. It can be relieved by a trip to the British Isles. If Haworth, the home of the Brontes, is not on your list, please add it. It was the high point of one of our trips and the high point of Haworth was a walk on the moors.

    • Alas, I am becalmed for the time being so must content myself with local pilgrimages. Henry Handel Richardson at Maldon is a great place to start:)

  6. This is on my list too, thanks for your review, you certainly made me want to move it up the pile.

  7. Great review Lisa. This book has been on my TBR, and indeed in my house for quite some time. Alas I haven’t got to reading it yet although I have listened to his Art of Travel a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Naturally as a Francophile I aspire to read Proust. I tried it quite a few years ago and without the aid of an exercise bike I only managed about 20 pages from memory. My life is too fragmented and my concentration too limited to tackle it at the moment, although I remain interested and will keep it on the list for my retirement. I did buy the graphic novel version of Swann’s Way a few months ago. Naturally I haven’t cracked the spine…

  8. Oooh, I didn’t know there was a graphic novel version of Swann’s Way, what fun!


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