How Proust Can Change Your Life: Reviews

Cressida Connolly in The Sunday Express, 13 April 1997

All bookworms know that Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is one of the century’s literary masterpieces. But recognising its importance and finishing the work do not always go hand in hand: at 1.25 million words it is the printed equivalent of the Grand National.

Many readers fall at the first fence. Only a few can stay the course. Luckily, in spite of its title, you don’t have to have read Proust to relish Alain de Botton’s latest effort.

This is his fourth book and, like the earlier three, reveals a sharp intelligence and an enviable erudition. In all his books, serious philosophical ideas, teasing advice for lovers and thoughts on literature are tossed in the air and spun together like juggling balls.

The display is so dazzling that you almost don’t notice just how clever de Botton is actually being. It is this sleight of hand which places squarely in the finest, and most witty, tradition of European writing.

Accordingly, how Proust Can Change Your Life wears its considerable scholarship lightly. It transpires that Marcel Proust’s father was a well-known doctor and author of various self-help books.

De Botton makes good comic use of this, even including some very silly illustrations from Dr Proust’s guides – which show readers how to best jump off walls and de Botton’s book is divided into nine chapters with titles such as How To Be A Good Friend or How To Open Your Eyes.

Serious Proustophiles might take exception to such irreverent treatment, but for the rest of us it provides an excellent introduction to the master’s ideas. Despite its jokey format, de Botton is enraptured by Proust and makes a convincing case for him as a matchless sage on all human affairs.

Proust, as is well known, was very odd: nocturnal and a hypochondriac. Why heed him? Because, according to de Botton, the strange facts of his life in no way diminish his wisdom. In the best chapter here, How To Suffer Successfully, he outlines a powerful case for Proust’s unhappy lifestyle. “It is worth pointing out that feeling things (which usually means feeling them painfully) is at some level linked to the acquisitions of knowledge,” he writes.

“Proust’s misfortunes should not be allowed to cast doubt on the validity of his ideas – his suffering is the perfect precondition for insights.” By extension of which, he concluded, the best doctor to visit would be the one who has most often been ill.

As well as advice gleaned from Proust’s writing, this book is peppered with anecdotes from his life.

His one hilarious encounter with James Joyce, at the Paris Ritz in 1922, was remembered thus by Joyce: “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘non.’ Proust asked me if I knew the work of so-and-so. I said ‘non.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said ‘non.’ And so on.” So much for the meeting of the two most original writers of the past hundred years.

Serious Lit crate (and this is not a trivial book) was never so light or amusing. In the final chapter, de Botton cautions against the kind of literary tourism which makes us flock to visit sights depicted in books: “A genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world with his eyes not to look at his world through our eyes.”

It is high praise to say that he succeeds in enabling us to do so.

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