How Proust Can Change Your Life

Amy Kiernan in Humanitas, Volume XI, No. 1, 1998

“Generations of critics have told us we are not supposed to read novels for what they have to tell us about life,” observes Phyllis Rose. If this is true, if fiction is not supposed to tell us about life, then the contemporary literary world is a fabulous success. Too often nowadays, the American novel reveals little about enduring human experience and much about the dry social and political issues that are supposed to animate us. It is as if only those subjects that “raise awareness” are deemed worthy by contemporary writers.

Still, some readers prefer to intensify their appreciation for the perennial drama that is life. In his essays and especially in his multi-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust shows that a deeper life can be gained by seeing the ordinary as the significant. He engendered in his readers a finer sensitivity to the details of their own experience. If two new books bearing his name are any indication, Proust may be coming back into fashion.

If you do not have time to read all the volumes of Remembrance of Things Past (or if you cannot fit it on your bookshelves), Alain de Botton’s book, which highlights the best in Proust, is a good alternative. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel provides exactly what its title promises: an insightful, concise explanation of how to live more perceptively, intensely and genuinely. Botton has collected (the more) perceptive parts of Proust’s oeuvre, both fiction and essay. Proust speaks for himself, but Botton’s ability to add something to those insights indicates that he is a man who has already had his life changed by a careful reading of Proust. Botton means to make that change contagious.

Botton points out that Proust’s descriptions are so good that you see your own subtle feelings in them and know that you are not alone. The trials that you believe you cannot handle, you can indeed get through, for Proust draws a map of similar difficulties endured. Botton observes that Proust’s work “stretches to an ability to describe [our experiences] far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, but could not have formulated on our own.” Proust shows that philosophy emanates from our own experience, illustrating that philosophy, as J.M. Miclot puts it, is “nothing other than the articulation of desire.”

Indeed, Proust linked feelings to the acquisition of knowledge. He wrote, “We imagine that we know exactly what things are and people think, for the simple reason that we do not care about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the jealous man has, then it becomes a kaleidoscope in which we can no longer distinguish anything.” Botton comments on a man who is tortured by the desire to know a woman: “He understands what is hidden from him in the light of what is revealed, and therefore understands nothing.”

Proust called the reading of newspapers “an abominable and sensual act.” He wrote that the events in newspaper articles “are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.” This distancing of life was intolerable to a person who experienced life as directly at any one moment as did Proust. Botton reflects, “The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated.” Hence, the trivialization of contemporary life history by its reduction to celebrities and social power.

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