How Proust Can Change Your Life: Reviews

Julie K.L. Dam in Time, 2 June 1997 

Alain de Botton’s delicious new book explains how in the search of a lost time can change our lives

Even the most diligent of readers may be excused for falling short of conquering the Mount Everest of 20th century literature, Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Considering the thousands of pages in the 13-part autobiographical novel, there should be no question where that lost time went. What a marvel it is, then, to discover that Alain de Botton has condensed the impenetrable work into nine easy pieces that promise to show How Proust Can Change Your Life (Picador; 215 pages).

The book is organized as a mock self-help guide: the chapters include not only “How to Express Your Emotions” but also “How to Suffer Successfully.” De Botton’s irreverent, witty book does contain serious literary criticism and biographical minutiae–if only to demystify Proust, who, despite his genius, was more a boorish mama’s boy than the stereotypical literary romantic.

How Proust Can Change Your Life opens with Proust’s response to a newspaper that asked readers what they would do if they knew the world was about to end. Proust answered: “I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it – our life – hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.” Those two sentences dashed off to a Paris newspaper manage to express what Proust tried to convey, a thousand times more verbosely, in his tome – what De Botton edits to “how to stop wasting, and begin appreciating one’s life.”

The famous madeleine that conjures up memories of Proust’s childhood appears in a chapter entitled “How to Open Your Eyes.” The little cake, De Botton argues, triggered not mere recollection but appreciation, which is often lost when we are “surrounded by numerous less helpful images which, with no sinister intentions and often with great artistry, nevertheless have the effect of suggesting to us that there is a depressing gap between our own life and the realm of beauty.” Proust’s moral, he concludes, is that we should “blame memory rather than what is remembered.”

Not that Proust, a hypochondriac and pessimist, often did as he wrote. The ne’er-do-well son of a prominent doctor, he wrote much of his masterpiece in the pauses between complaining of one ailment or another from his sickbed and attending vacuous high-society events. So De Botton urges readers to pay attention to the cautionary tales. Given the length of A la Recherche, learn “How to Take Your Time.” Don’t emulate Proust, who never had a successful relationship and whose narrator loses in love; you too can know “How to Be Happy in Love.”

But De Botton needn’t worry about his subject’s pitfalls. At 27, the Swiss-born, Cambridge-educated Londoner has written four acclaimed books – Proust had to pay to publish his first volume at age 42 – that place him at the forefront of contemporary English literature. And in any case, his last chapter, “How to Put Books Down,” really can’t be applied to How Proust Can Change Your Life. It is an irresistible madeleine of a volume that ought to be devoured in one sitting.

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