October 7, 1997
by Kay Kimbrough
HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE: NOT A NOVEL
Alain de Botton
Pantheon Books, New York, 1997, $19.95.
The first chapter in this how-to book, "How to Love Life Today," opens with a reminder of Marcel Proust's inability to apply to his own life what he learned from the long labor of creating REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST and concludes with de Botton's distillation of Proust's hard-earned wisdom.
Proust wrote a reply to a newspaper query about what one should do when faced with certain death at a certain point of time in the near future. With suggestions he himself never followed: go to the Louvre, making a trip to India and initiating a love affair with a woman. There is no indication that he ever wanted to carry out these plans, but, if he did, there was no opportunity for him to do so, for he died shortly after writing the letter to the paper. According to de Botton, the pragmatic reason to read Proust is not in what he advised in this response, but in what he can teach us in his fiction: "Far from a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age, it was a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start appreciating life."
Proust himself could have written the second chapter, "How to Read for Yourself," which highlights the value of literature and art in learning to see ourselves and others in the context of other worlds, such as those of Homer and Proust, and in gaining more understanding from what we see. Specifically, we feel less alone when reading Proust. He quotes a Proust observation on the peculiar behavior of lovers: "When two people part it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches." "Comforting" is the word de Botton uses to describe the effect of this sentence on a reader who has endured such a "saccharine dismissal" but who has, like the Proust character, survived the insult. Proust himself summarizes the chapter:
"If we read the new masterpiece of a man of genius, we are delighted to find in it those reflections of ours that we despised, joys and sorrows which we had repressed, a whole world of feeling we had scorned, and whose value the book in which we discover them suddenly reaches us."
"How to Take Your Time" opens with the reaction of publishers to Proust's first volume, a reaction so negative that Proust published his own work, causing the publishing world much embarrassment when the work provoked critical acclaim. The concern of the publishers was time: Proust took too much time to give an account of an insomniac suffering during what seems be endless time and meanwhile remembering his childhood bedtime agonies. Their opinions were reflected in those of some of his readers. One entertaining response came from an American beauty living in Rome who devoted three years to reading his work, only to find "I don't understand a thing, but absolutely nothing." She then gave the literary criticism that must have taken no time at all to compose: "Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say." The point of Proust's work, of course, is that understanding life, appreciating life, relishing life and writing about life take time. Proust would shudder at the schedules of "busy" people in today's world, viewing their "accomplishments" as false badges of honor, seeing in them "the self-satisfaction felt by 'busy' men -- however idiotic their business -- at 'not having time' to do what you are doing."
"How to Suffer Successfully" deals with how to learn from suffering, from illnesses, from betrayals, from cruelties, and from simple slights. The point is that people who cannot "alchemize" suffering into "ideas" never find the relief they could from their suffering. The author concludes the chapter:
"The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals, and to avoid the ingratitude of those who blame the peas, the bores, the time, and the weather."
"How to Express Your Emotions" deals with the problem of learning to see and to feel and to express our individual reactions, free from clichés. Proust saw the function of art as the art "undoing": "Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us."
The chapters on friendship and love give fresh insights on surviving these experiences: do not be completely honest in speaking or writing to your friends and keep lovers interested in you by pretending to be or actually being interested in another lover. Madame Leroi, "the wisest person in Proust's book, according to de Botton, says it all: "Love? I make it often, but I never talk about it."
"How to Open Your Eyes" is the highlight of the book, showing us the way to appreciating the life that is before us rather than regretting the life that is an ocean away or a century away. The concluding chapter ends this entertaining overview of Proust and his potential significance to the reader with strange advice. Proust wrote on reading: "To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it."
Alain de Botton ends his book with "Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside."