How Proust Can Change Your Life: Reviews

Allan Massie in Daily Telegraph, 12 April 1997

Neville Cardus once called on Sir Thomas Beecham in his dressing room after a performance of “Die Meister-singer”. He found the great man wrapped in a towel and sipping champagne. “Wagner, ” said Sir Thomas, “was the most selfish man that ever lived.”

Proust was not, perhaps, quite so selfish; not even as selfish as Joyce, who thought that a reader might quite properly devote his whole life to Finnegans Wake. But he runs both Wagner and Joyce close. He demands a lot from his readers: time, first of all; then the ability to follow his rambling sentences from beginning to end; then the willingness to accept that his minute analysis of emotional states is as important as he insists it is.

But he is addictive. Once he has taken hold of you, he has you for life. And he has an interesting effect on some readers. Pamela Hansford Johnson, for instance, wrote a book of “Proust reconstructions” – scenes that Proust might have written but never did. Now one of our most brilliant young writers, Alain de Botton, gives us a new slant on self-improvement books: How Proust Can Change Your Life.

That, as he points out, was indeed Proust’s own ambition: “Ah Celeste,” he said to his maid, “if I could be sure of doing with my books as much as my father did for the sick.” His father was, of course, a famous doctor. Can Marcel minister in like manner to minds or spirits diseased? De Botton makes a good, light-hearted and witty case for answering “yes”. This is partly because Proust realised that the reader is a writer himself.

“In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.”

So what can Proust teach us? De Botton offers nine easy lessons – easy to understand, not necessarily to put into practice. They are: how to love life today; how to read for yourself; how to take your time; 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.

If the reader, acquainted with biographies of Proust and their version of his life, objects, with justice, that Proust himself was not, in his own life, very good at any of these things, except perhaps the last, at least where other people’s books were concerned (but not his own, which he kept correcting, even in the last stages of proof), why, Proust himself gave the answer – that “the writer’s true self is manifested in his books alone, and that what he shows to men of the world is merely a man of the world like themselves”. Or, as de Botton puts it:

“… however brilliant, however wise the work, it seems that the lives of artists can be relied on to exhibit an extraordinary, incongruous range of turmoil, misery and stupidity.”

De Botton’s little book is so charming, amusing and sensible that it may even itself change your life. If, however, it sends you, as is clearly intended, to read Proust, the chance of such a change is still greater. But there is a warning: reading is “only an incitement”. As de Botton writes, “even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside”. This one offers much enjoyment before you toss it across the room and begin to live.

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