This is my review of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton.
I thought this quirky mixture of selective biographical details and literary analysis might pave the way to my good intentions to complete at least the first volume of Proust’s “Remembrance of Times Past”. Presenting his ideas in short sections under subheadings makes for an easy, if fragmented read.
Proust spent much of his adult life in bed, was plagued with illness and pain although probably also a hypochondriac, and sounds distinctly bi-polar in, for instance, his obsession with the distracting effects of noise, and occasional bursts of manic activity, as when he translated Ruskin’s work, despite having a very limited initial knowledge of English. Were these traits critical to his unusual ability to observe, describe and philosophise about minute aspects of human behaviour and motivation?
I would have liked more detail on this complex man whose excessive politeness led his friends to coin the verb “to proustify” but who also held that friendship expresses itself in futile conversations which only “indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute” and is in the end no more than a lie to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone”.
I was impressed that De Botton was only about 28 when this book was first published. There is something “young fogeyish”, facetious and a little too clever by half in his tone, but he succeeds in highlighting some thought-provoking aspects – perhaps the essence – of Proust’s writing, from which he quotes very effectively. For instance, Proust noted that there is nothing particularly special about the poplars Monet loved to paint, but through the painter’s interpretation, one can learn to appreciate the trees in one’s own experience more. Reading can open one’s eyes to the surrounding world, but writers should not be worshipped: even the greatest books have limitations – they do not provide blueprints for living or conclusions, but only “incitements” to understand more. So, it is ironical that the very ordinary village of Illiers has added the suffix “Combray” from Proust’s imaginary settlement and become a place of pilgrimage where visitors buy madeleines supposedly of the type Proust so famously described.
It is easy to understand why Virginia Woolf was so elated by the “vibration and saturation” of Proust’s writing, yet also depressed by the sense that she could not begin to write as well- although in her own original way, she achieved greatness.
Selecting the above points has made me realise the degree of skill De Bouton has exercised in expressing his ideas, but I think he has limited his impact by being a bit too jokey and trite, particularly at the end of chapters.