How Proust Can Change Your Life: Reviews

John Updike in the New Yorker, 2 June 1997

Alain de Botton, the author of “How Proust Can Change Your Life” (Pantheon; $19.95), is described on the dust jacket as living in London and Washington, but his name and his passion for codification savor strongly of the Gallic. His curious, humorous, didactic, and dazzling book bears the subtitle “Not a Novel”; it contains, however, more human interest and play of fancy than most fiction. Its discourse, broken into such instructive chapters as “How to Love Life Today,” “How to Suffer Successfully,” and “How to Open Your Eyes,” elucidates the lessons of a novel, “Remembrance of Things Past,” by Marcel Proust. De Botton has plainly spent much time within that great work and, further, has made himself privy to many minutiae concerning Proust himself. We learn, for instance, that Proust’s Paris telephone number was 29205; that he often tipped not fifteen or twenty per cent but two hundred per cent of a restaurant bill; that his skin was so sensitive he couldn’t use soap but would wash with “finely woven, moistened towels, then pat himself dry with fresh linen (an average wash requires twenty towels, which Proust specifies must be taken to the only laundry that uses the right non-irritant powder, the blanchisserie Lavigne, which also does Jean Cocteau’s laundry)”; that he was so attached to his mother that, though past the age of thirty, he gave her detailed reports on his sleep, his “peeing,” and his bowel movements; that he was always cold and often kept his fur coat on during dinner parties. We also learn some facts about Proust’s close relatives: his father, Dr. Adrien Proust, wrote thirty-four books of his own, including some well-known manuals on hygiene and physical fitness; Marcel’s younger brother, Dr. Robert Proust, the author of “The Surgery of the Female Genitalia,” was so celebrated for his prostatectomies that in the trade they were called “proustatectomies,” and was so hardy that he survived being run over by a five-ton coal wagon.

Such details are not idly marshalled. After depicting Marcel’s sensitivity, so extreme as to be grotesque, de Botton makes the point that “feeling things (which usually means feeling them painfully) is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge.” Proust puts it: “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” The painter Elstir, in the novel, formulates the principle thus: “We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” De Botton examines five Proustian characters who suffer unsuccessfully, concocting false solutions to their discomforts which in fact prolong them. The chapters “How to Be a Good Friend” and “How to Put Books Down” show from passages in Proust’s novel and life how a realistic, even cynical estimate of the value of friendship can fitly support extravagant efforts of cordiality and flattery (his friends coined “the verb to proustify to express a slightly too conscious attitude of geniality, together with what would vulgarly have been called affectations, interminable and delicious”), and how the most passionate devotion to an author, such as Proust paid to John Ruskin, properly stops short of idolatry, as when Proust concluded that Ruskin was frequently “silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous.”

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