Review of ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’

How Proust Can Change Your Life
Alain de Botton

In the summer of 1909, a frail, asthmatic failure retired to a cork-lined room in Paris and began writing a novel about time and memory. Over the next 15 years, Marcel Proust toiled to create the heavyweight champion of 20th century literature. Remembrance of Things Past is much more than seven hefty novels; it's a museum, a world, a universe of insight. Merely plow through Proust, and voilà! You'll be wise.

Proust is high on millions of "someday" reading lists. Yet modern readers barely have time to read their e-mail, let alone tackle a million word masterpiece. So the French author sits, dipping his madeleine in tea, filling space on dusty shelves. If only someone could distill Proust and serve his wisdom as an aperitif.

How Proust Can Change Your Life puts Proust into a witty and wonderful package. As its subtitle reveals, Alain de Botton's book is "Not a Novel." Instead, it's a delightful look at Proust's miserable life and triumphant work. In just under 200 pages, de Botton gives readers the essence of Proust while offering his own quirky views on the perils of living.

At first glance, Proust is an unlikely role model. Sickly, morose, neurotic, he seemed to have been "born without a skin," a friend noted. As the son of a famous doctor, Proust wrestled with failure and depression before beginning his magnum opus at age 38. Yet as de Botton notes, failure is a fine teacher. And Proust's novels provide beaucoup advice on how and how not to live.

De Botton deftly sums up Proust's philosophy in nine chapters. He tells us "How to Love Life Today," "How to Open Your Eyes," "How to Be Happy in Love," et cetera. Each elegant chapter is filled with anecdotes and passages from Proust. We learn about Proust's one meeting with James Joyce, his devotion to his illiterate maid, Céleste, his comical hypochondria and his sudden death at 51. Even if the book doesn't change your life, it's both enlightening and erudite.

Proust may have suffered, de Botton notes, but he knew how to "suffer successfully." In his chapter on how to suffer the same way, de Botton psychoanalyzes several of Proust's characters. Charles Swann, hero of Swann in Love, is Patient No. 5. Swann's problem: he has received an anonymous letter impugning the honor of his beloved Odette. The solution: Wake up, Charles! Discern the secrets of human character. Or as Proust put it, "when we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture chambers or skeletons."

Troubled by the hurry of the digital age? Trust Proust. Anyone who wrote 30 pages describing one night's insomnia can tell you "How to Take Your Time"; Proust was paced solely by his imagination. He read railroad timetables for their romantic suggestion and saw the world in a cookie crumb. He could even dwell on the newspaper, plotting stories hidden in the headlines.

How Proust Can Change Your Life includes zany illustrations. Offbeat 19th century engravings and portraits from the Louvre put Proust in the context of the fin de siècle. De Botton even measures Proust's longest sentence, finding it "a little short of four meters and stretch[ing] around the base of a wine bottle seventeen times."

Reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, we come away wanting to read more, both of de Botton (at 28, the author of three novels) and of Proust himself. Not just for beginners, the book will be appreciated even by those who have conquered literature's heavyweight champ. (I plowed through all of Proust while in the Peace Corps, but de Botton suggests I may have missed something. I should have taken my time.)

If we all knew how to take our time, we might all have time for Proust. But as Proust's brother Robert noted, "The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time." (He gave a literal translation of the title to his sibling's masterpiece.) Now, there's another alternative. Sip de Botton's aperitif. Then, loving life today, sample Proust. If he doesn't change your life, there's always e-mail waiting.

Reviewer Bruce Watson, a freelance writer, is based in Massachusetts.

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