How Proust Can Change Your Life: Reviews

Edmund White in the Observer, 13 April 1997

Everyone has always spoken of Proust as the Great Moralist, but no-one before Botton has had the chutzpah to take the claim literally. For the first time someone has set out to isolate rules of conduct and general principles about Life that can be derived from the 2,000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past (which Botton, following Nabokov’s example, more literally translates as In Search of Lost Time).

The result, I hasten to point out, is good-humoured, whimsical and convincing, especially since the lessons are far from bromidic and often are refreshingly perverse. In fact, How Proust Can Change Your Life, can even be read as a parody of an American self-help book:

Q: How long can the average human expect to be appreciated?

A: Fully appreciated? Often, as little as a quarter of an hour …

Q: Did Proust have any relevant thoughts on dating? What should one talk about on a first date? And is it good to wear black?

A: Advice is scant. A more fundamental doubt is whether one should accept dinner in the first place.

There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free.’

Sometimes I feel that Botton holds back from the full horror of Proust’s message. For instance, Botton chalks up Proust’s dim view of friendship to his x-ray vision, his uncanny ability to detect flaws in all other human beings. But the truth is that Proust felt that friendship in comparison to love was a waste of time for the artist (the writer’s vocation being Proust’s only concern) – since friendship is always twinned with insincerity – whereas passion always entails jealousy, and the jealous lover’s constant hunt for signs of infidelity trains his or her artistic powers of observation.

Botton derives some useful tips from Proust about how to be a friend: ‘The scorners of friendship can … be the finest friends in the world,’ perhaps because, as Botton concludes, ‘these scorners approach the bond with more realistic expectations.’ Disabused friends, Botton continues, have ‘no resentment about asking rather than answering questions, seeing friendship as a domain in which to learn about, not lecture others. Furthermore, because they appreciate others’ susceptibilities, they accept a resultant need for a degree of false amiability, for a rose-tinted interpretation of an ageing ex-courtesan’s appearance or for a generous review of a well-intentioned, but pedestrian, volume of poetry.’

Undeniably, Proust felt that friendship, like love, is an illusion. As Proust’s biographer George Painter puts it, rather oracularly, friendship is just another form of idolatry: ‘The narrator’s vain pursuit of names of places and names of people, of friendship, even of love, is idolatry, a worship of the ephemeral instead of the eternal. Idolatry is Time Lost; the truth behind the locked door of the image is Time Regained: and the key to the door is unconscious memory.’ For if Proust’s book is a training manual, it is a breviary for writers, not for ordinary mortals; the entire Remembrance is about the narrator’s inability to write as he succumbs to the various temptations of worldliness, passion and friendship. Only at the end of the text does he begin to write the very book we’ve been reading all along.

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