I think I first picked up this book after trying, and failing, to read Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s autobiographical epic, In Search of Lost Time. At 1.25 million words, reading Proust requires a commitment; I was working on a novel of my own at the time, holding down a job at the CBC, and trying to keep up with two teenagers. Life is short, I told myself, and moved on.*
How Proust Can Change Your Life seemed to me like a kind of short-cut. I knew nothing about the author, but I liked the fact that it was a handy-sized paperback running to a mere 197 pages. And it was shelved in the Humour section which is often, but not always, a good sign.
When I got home with the book, I had to pause for a moment after reading the biographical note on the author’s page. Alain de Botton, it said, was born in 1969. “He is the author of the novels On Love, The Romantic Movement, and Kiss and Tell; his work has been translated into sixteen languages.” This was in 1998 and he hadn’t yet turned 30. I had to go and lie down.
Oncc I recovered, I returned to the book, and discovered an essayist and philosopher with a rare and remarkable gift: one who can convey profound, even abstruse, philosophical ideas in language that is accessible, provocative, and yes, often humorous.
Don’t get me wrong: we’re not talking about dumbing down those ideas. This is not Proust for Dummies. It is, in fact, exactly what it says on the back cover: “. . . a generously perceptive literary biography [written in a style] at once slyly ironic and genuinely wise”. It is a delight.
The author divides the book into nine chapters, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of Proust’s life, his novel – which is, of course, drawn from his life – his letters, and his conversations with friends. These chapters have headings such as “How to Love Life Today”, “How to Express Your Emotions”, “How to Open Your Eyes”, and “How to be Happy in Love”. Within these pages we learn how to properly read a newspaper, why an advertisement for soap might inspire deep thoughts, and why you might need 30 pages to describe your difficulty falling asleep,
Proust lived most of his life expecting to die at any moment. In the chapter “How To Suffer Successfully”, we learn of his many and varied illnesses: asthma, poor digestion, perpetual insomnia, fits of coughing, sensitivity to altitude, fevers, an inability to swallow. He was always cold and wore a fur coat even indoors in the summer. He was terrified of mice, of loud noises, of other people, of travel. And yet he believed that suffering was a precondition to acquiring knowledge; as de Botton writes, “It is not the contented or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.”
Proust had a lot of friends, many of whom wrote laudatory books about him after his death. Which was odd because, as de Botton points out, he was deeply pessimistic about friendship. His understanding of human nature led him to conclude that friendship in the end was no more than “. . . a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone.”
But he put himself to great trouble to be a good friend. He was extravagantly generous, he paid attention to each and every person within his orbit, and he was a good listener. He had a strong desire to please, perhaps partly because he feared he wouldn’t be liked if he didn’t. (“Oh! Making a nuisance of myself, that has always been my nightmare”.) His longing to be liked meant he invariably shied away from telling his friends the unvarnished truth. When the poet and novelist Anna de Noailles published a collection of pedestrian, ultimately forgettable poems, he reviewed it for Le Figaro, writing that she had “created images as sublime as those of Victor Hugo, that her work was a dazzling success and a masterpiece of literary impressionism.”
Hypocritical? Perhaps. But kind. She was, after all, a friend, and a hurtful review stays with one for years. My first novel received a devastating review in a national newspaper; the book went on to win the Alberta Writers Guild Best Novel award that year but it’s the snide remarks in that review which get quoted back to me 25 years later.
De Botton claims that Proust, understanding the incompatability of truth and affection, chose to be affectionate with his friends, and saved the truth for his novel. In Search of Lost Time was “the place where the unsayable was finally granted expression”. This did have some unfortunate repurcussions, as friends of his recognized themselves in the novel’s characters and took offense. Not enough, though, to prevent them from praising him to the skies after he died.
Early in the book, de Botton characterizes Proust’s masterpiece as “. . . a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life”. And there are many practical tips for those of us who would like to have read Proust, without necessarily reading it. Proust, he says, shows us how to open our eyes to the beauty of ordinary objects, to find happiness in taking a second look at our so-called mundane surroundings.
What this book teaches us is that there are no short-cuts to reading Proust; it takes time and effort and patience. The sentences are long, winding, and highly subordinated: de Botton surmises that the longest, which is located in the fifth volume, would, if laid out in a straight line, run just under four meters and wrap around the base of a wine bottle 17 times. This is not the kind of book you can read between checking messages on your phone. (Okay, let me be clear – you can’t really read any book between checking messages on your phone. That’s not reading, is it? It’s scanning.)
So while I may never feel I have enough time, effort, and patience to actually read In Search of Lost Time, I will never tire of reading Alain de Botton.
How Proust Can Change Your Life (1998), is published by Vintage International.
*I have stopped feeling guilty about this. As Proust’s brother, Robert, said, “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.”