How Proust Can Change Your Life

Benito Rakower in the Washington Post Sunday, 4 May 1997

Marcel Proust, a perpetual invalid who rarely left his cork-lined room, lived as no sane man could even imagine, while writing a novel that only the most determined readers have been able to finish. Some readers have felt like Mallory and Irving, 500 feet from the summit of Everest, gasping for breath in an increasingly rarefied atmosphere. But despite its enormous difficulty, In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) dominates the literary horizon as a supreme peak.

Alain de Botton has written what seems, at first, a whimsical “self-help” manual based on Proust’s 3,000-page novel. His book is at once a brilliant tour de force and a seriously legitimate guide for the perplexed, amply fulfilling the promise of its title.

We are informed that “Proust was born into a family where the art of making people feel better was taken very seriously indeed.” Proust pere was a doctor who wrote more than 30 books on all aspects of health and hygiene. To de Botton, Marcel was dutifully following in his father’s footsteps while appearing to be an asthmatic invalid.

How can a man who made illness into a consecrated profession be trusted, and his implicit recommendations taken seriously? De Botton dismisses this problem easily in a typically urbane sentence: “It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.” The telling word is “miserable.” With deftness and wit, de Botton makes it evident that Proust was a Houdini of self-immurement, so accomplished that the scent of a lily drifting somehow into his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom could induce a life-threatening crisis.

“The happy few” who read Proust realize quickly that his novel examines relentlessly all the causes of human misery and unhappiness yet becomes an exhortation to seize the true bliss within us — Proust’s celebrated “la vraie vie.” De Botton’s judicious excerpts show how the novel can teach us to suffer successfully, to express our emotions, to be a good friend, to open our eyes, to be happy in love, and to put books down.

In one of his finest passages, de Botton observes that for Proust the value of betrayal and jealousy is “its ability to generate the intellectual motivation to investigate the hidden sides of others.” The good use to which we put the people who cause us pain is one of the novel’s dominant motifs. Thus, the book becomes one of “the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive.”

Proust, like Tolstoy, Stendhal and Flaubert, assiduously read the newspapers for ways to stimulate and sharpen his creative faculties. In one May 1914 newspaper there appeared the brief account of a horse who had leapt into the carriage of the tram in front of it, seriously injuring several passengers. De Botton suggests what Proust would have done with this simple story in a droll and facetious manner. No doubt the “somersault into the tram [was] provoked by misjudged nostalgia for a show-jumping career or vengeance for the omnibus that had recently killed its brother in the market place, later put down for horse steak.”

De Botton is really pointing to the way Proust transformed his frivolity into a method for undertaking his greatest search, the search for lost time.

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